Until about 12 months ago I had never heard of the artist Sixto Rodriguez. To my South African editor, that is akin to saying you’ve never heard of Elvis. No exaggeration. Then on seeing Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning documentary feature Searching for Sugar Man (2012) I was, like many others, dumbfounded by the man’s story, from promising singer/songwriter of the early 70s to complete anonymity and finally to celebrated performer, first in South Africa then the world over. The circumstances of his initially ill-fated music career are extraordinary and provide a valuable insight into the machinations of the music industry – how tough it can be for so many talented musicians to break through and succeed against so much competition in an already crowded marketplace.
That Rodriguez unwittingly became a famous figure in South Africa while leading a humble life in Detroit throughout the 80s and early 90s is remarkable on its own, but what makes his story so fascinating is that the quality of his music is so good it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t become successful in the first place. His 2 albums Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971) each feature a rich selection of poetically written songs with catchy riffs, relatable lyrics and beautiful melodies. These songs have been around for a long time and un-noticed by many, but when you listen to them you feel like they had been in your life the whole time.
Seeing Rodriguez live in concert must be viewed in context of his life story, as I believe it gives a greater understanding to the show that he performs. The atmosphere at the sold out Apollo was warm and full of anticipation to even catch a look at this talented, modest and enigmatic man take to the stage to do what he loves. His quiet entrance caused a huge reaction but in taking his time for the basics – fine-tune his guitar and talk to the band – meant the crowd settled down to show him respect. Here is a man who deserves to be respected, and at 71 will talk and play at a pace he feels comfortable with. His first song – Climb Up on My Music and later his famous Sugar Man were both played at a gentler pace than the original recordings and were a reminder that we were seeing someone who first recorded these over 40 years ago, even if many have only just added them to their Spotify playlist. In this regard the experience was reminiscent of seeing Yusuf Islam play the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago. Yusuf played Wild World and Moonshadow, but not in the same way he did as Cat Stevens in the 70s.
Rodriguez’s set was peppered with songs from both albums, which having discovered him only recently was then rewarding to hear the audience cheer in recognition with each intro then seem to know all the lyrics. The more interesting and unexpected aspect was in his choice of covers of songs by who I presume were his musical heroes growing up. The first of note was a belting version of Little Richard’s Lucille – his vocal and rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing suddenly belying his age showing us a man only too comfortable in the leather trousers and top hat he decided to wear for the night. Later we also had Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes, perhaps played as a nod in recognition of his status in South Africa for all those years when he thought no-one had even heard of him.
More intriguingly, we sporadically had a selection of rocked-up arrangements of old standards previously associated with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Ella Fitzgerald. This may sound bizarre to anyone who has heard his albums but the arrangements worked extremely well. His encore consisted of Cold Fact then I’m Gonna Live Til I Die, the latter transforming Frank Sinatra’s defiant big band piece into something more subversive and even melancholy.
Coming away from the concert I was left wondering what might have been, the new material proving his range and diversity. Who knows what he could have achieved if granted further opportunities to record in his early days. His voice still holds up extremely well and I’m hopeful he will still feel inspired enough to record a new album one day. But in the meantime I’m glad there is a such a unique individual out there, doing his own thing, keeping a cool 70s vibe into his 70s and bestowing positive messages on his audience between tunes. Like the man said himself this evening ‘hate is too strong an emotion to waste on something you don’t like’.
Rodriguez / Hammersmith Apollo 13/3/14
Words > Roy Swansborough.