Usually, if you can hear fan over folk star, the show is just dreadful. But I can now count on one finger the concerts at which the crowd sing-along has been enjoyable. Rodriguez.
The sing-along to 1970 track ‘Sugar Man’ may be drowning out the main act but it also represents a feeling that something wrong – namely, Rodriguez’s retreat into relative obscurity after his two Dylan-esque records bombed – is still being put right.
While fame eluded Rodriguez in the U.S. and he returned in the early 70s to his Detroit home to work for decades in demolition work, unbeknownst to him, he was becoming a platinum-selling artist in South Africa. Modest recognition also greeted him in Australia and he toured here in ’79 and ’81.
Last year’s Searching for Sugar Man documentary, however, re-ignited interest in Rodriguez and saw his popularity ripple outwards even further.
That said, tonight’s show is mainly middle-aged South African couples. Due to poor eyesight, Rodriguez requires a steady arm to reach his microphone. Once there, he needs no assistance bar that of backing band, The Break, to play an hour-and-a-half of cuts from Cold Fact (‘70) and Coming from Reality (‘71).
The Break responds to Rodriguez’s placid delivery by playing with relative hush: no-one wants to be the guy that upstaged the septuagenarian. What Rodriguez’s voice lacks in projection, it compensates for in preservation – remaining that curious mix of artless yet aloof, camp yet streetwise, lisping yet at times clarion-clear. And though he is frail when walking, his splayed, five-finger, Spanish-style guitar playing is still strong.
Clipped South African voices pepper him with requests and declarations of love. “You’re a legend Rodriguez!” yells one. To which Rodriguez responds, in words both light and loaded, “I just want to be treated like an ordinary legend.”
This quip aside, Rodriguez’s jokes are bad and his anecdotes bewildering. Yet his failure to master showbiz’s surface-level trivialities is genuinely endearing and not just because he’s now 70-years-old. It may have become a cliché of the Rodriguez experience, and it may be due to what’s partly a mythology (propped up by the Searching for Sugar Man documentary), but delivering to Rodriguez the fame that previously eluded him somehow eclipses the show’s flaws – as proved by the six-deep tangle of fans surrounding the merch desk afterwards.
SMH version here.