The Sixto Rodriguez story is a good one. If you haven't seen it, the academy award winning documentary “Searching For Sugarman” is well worth your time. A little known singer songwriter from Detroit, his two albums, released in the early 70's, were commercial flops in the US, despite his obvious talent and the faith of his producers and record labels. His music career went nowhere and he settled into a life of manual labour and factory work.
Unbeknownst to him, he had become a huge success in South Africa. Despite the limited availability of his albums for some time, he had developed a huge following amongst the growing counter culture during the era of apartheid, becoming more well known and loved than both Elvis and the Rolling Stones. But he was nowhere to be found. With no knowledge of the success and adoration awaiting him in South Africa, Rodriguez never toured or recorded after 1973. It seemed to his fans that he had just vanished and rumours of an on stage suicide were rife. Eventually, in the late 1990's a couple of intrepid fans tracked him down and contacted him, eventually arranging a concert in South Africa and re-igniting Rodriguez's musical career. The film disregards some aspects of the story, notably the fact that he had toured Australia in 1981 and still had a following there, but it’s an undeniably interesting tale that’s made all the better by being told through an engaging film. So, since the 1990’s his career has been growing steadily, his two albums were reissued in 2009 and with the release of “Searching For Sugarman” in 2012, his notoriety skyrocketed. Now at the age of 72 Rodriguez is now playing sold out shows around the world, including two nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
I had heard Rodriguez’s records when the film was released and I enjoyed them. Both albums are the kind of tuneful, clever psychedelic pop that was a big part of my childhood. I could hear echoes of Love’s “Forever Changes” in the arrangements and hints of Dylan in the lyrics but with an original voice that kept it engaging. I didn’t quite see what had resonated so strongly with the people of South Africa but I’m a white man in London in 2015, far removed from the political and social climate of that time and place. Overall though I enjoyed his music enough that when the opportunity presented itself, I went to see him play.
I must have missed something. I’m sure of it. Whether the crowd at the show had all come from South Africa or I was just not paying proper attention to either the records or the documentary, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, the level of adoration and excitement for Rodriguez was beyond anything I’d seen before. First of all, the Albert Hall, which for those of you that are unfamiliar is a huge, prestigious, victorian concert hall in London, was packed to the rafters with fans. Who from what I could see, were predominantly white, older men, occasionally with their wives or kids in tow. Then there was a standing ovation for Rodriguez before he even got on stage. A good two minutes before. When he did finally come on stage, shuffling and supported by two of his daughters, there was even more applause, followed by near constant declarations of affection from audience members. This kind of unfettered love is rare to see at any performance but for a man who released two albums four decades ago and who most of these people have only been aware of for three years, It seems almost impossible. But, again, I thought to myself “I’ve just not picked up on something. I’m sure once he get’s going, I’ll get it.”
|Rodriguez on stage at the Royal Albert Hall|
For a man who has been praised for his song-writing and compared favourably to the great writers of his generation, Rodriguez seemed determined to cram as many covers into his set as he could. “La Bamba”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Somebody To Love” and others were all wheeled out, sometimes it seemed even to the surprise of the backing band who I could see pulling confused faces and occasionally shrugging to each other. As is sometimes the case with older artists, it was the band that was doing the heavy lifting. The rhythm section were tight and energetic and quite frankly I would pay good money to watch the lead guitarist jam out on stage any night of the week. Though they were able to cope with the curve balls they were being thrown, each song seemed to follow a distinct pattern. Rodriguez would start playing, the band would join in and halfway through the song, there would be an extended guitar solo that lasted for the rest of the number. After a while, the band would signal to each other and the drummer would make it very obvious that the song was coming to an end. I’m not sure how rehearsed or planned this was, but it seemed clear who was leading who.
I’ve seen shows in a similar vein to this before. Brian Wilson is a great example. A revered, older songwriter plays his hits to an audience of devoted fans whilst the majority of the work is done by a tight group of much younger musicians. And to my mind, there is nothing wrong with that set up. It affords some people the chance to relive their youth for a couple of hours and for younger audience members to get a glimpse of musicians that have inspired countless others and made a huge impact on our cultural world. With artists like Brian Wilson, I completely understand the draw and I completely understand why they have such devoted fans. What perplexes me about Rodriguez, is that he has managed to garner the same love and appreciation from a UK audience in what is essentially a very short career and I don’t quite understand why. Both of his albums are great, but there are only 2 of them and they’re 40 years old now. To my mind, for an audience to respond with such adoration as they did to this show, there either needs to be a large, well known body of work to draw from (Brian Wilson again serves as an example) or a performance that dispels all doubt (ever seen Springsteen play a 3 hour show?), neither of which were present here. I don’t wish to come off as cynical or mean spirited, Rodriguez deserves success and recognition for his work and his story, but I saw and heard little to support the fervor of his fans. But in the end, being able to instil that kind of devotion in people is something to be admired, even if I’m not sure I see it myself.