Sixto Rodriguez has enjoyed the kind of second wind that all initially-obscure artists dream about. There are lots of souls wandering the earth who made a couple of unsuccessful records thirty or forty years ago, shrugged and went back to their day jobs, but almost none of those will ever face a packed-out Greek Theater. Nor will they learn that some of their old songs were once hugely popular anti-apartheid anthems in South Africa. His utterly unique tale only caught the attention of most Americans just two years ago, with the documentary Searching For Sugarman becoming a surprise smash hit and effectively launching Rodriguez in his home country. But he’s been hugely popular in Australia and parts of Africa for decades, and returned to international touring back in the late 1990s.
On Friday, the 71-year old singer-guitarist led his three piece band through the bulk of his recorded repertoire and a handful of covers. I went to the show without having heard a note of his music, and walked out a fan. (Yes, I have the movie saved on my DVR, I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten around to it yet despite having had ample time to compare the merits of various Bachelorette contestants.)
At first listen, it’s easy to see why this music has captured such a large audience forty-plus years after its conception; it sounds familiar the first time you hear it. There are echoes of early seventies Dylan and Paul Simon, Lou Reed at his most “After Hours” old-timey, with the urgent but laid-back delivery of Neil Young circa On The Beach. His melodies are simple, effortless, and immediately memorable. He’s comfortable working in multiple different styles, from cocktail jazz to electric guitar wailers. His band is tasteful, understated, in the right place at the right time, always. It’s all very likeable on every level.
From the bit I’d read about him without hearing it, I was expecting a more strident, populist Phil Ochs kind of protest vibe. But apart from a few key tracks, and between-song banter that included a few shouts of “Power to the people!”, and the proclamation that “Men need to end violence against women!”, I didn’t hear much of that. Many were love songs, or lost-love songs. “Sugarman”, his most famous track in America and an unmissable anti-dope message, appeared to have been misunderstood by some of the crowd, as the scent of “sweet Mary Jane” floated through the aisles as if to provide an authentic Smell-O-Vision effect for the lyrics of the chorus. The singer obviously noticed, as he took a moment to admonish the crowd afterwards – “That was a PROSCRIPTIVE song, not a PRESCRIPTIVE one! Get yourself some hugs and stay away from the drugs!”
The only part of the show that didn’t entirely work was the attempt at cover tunes from the fifties. “Lucille” and “Blue Suede Shoes” were both a little flat, missing the manic energy required to make such things work, and his take on “Fever” lacked the overheated drama of the lyrics. But the final encore of Sinatra’s “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” added a poignant note to the proceedings, a moment suitable for the final scene of a heartwarming documentary film.
Female singer LP opened the show, accompanied by a drummer and guitarist/ keyboardist playing along to recorded tracks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on the festival circuit in the near future, she’s a vocal acrobat working in the adventurous side of mainstream pop, something like a modernized version of the Motels as conceived by a tUnEyArDs fan.