By Ben Wood
The story of Sixto Rodriguez is one of the strangest in music history. The self-effacing Detroittroubadour made two albums (1970’s Cold Fact and 1971′s Coming From Reality) which melded Dylanesque diatribes and ‘power to the people’ politics to styles from fuzz-heavy rock-outs to baroque folk-rock.
After both albums flopped, Rodriguez retired into obscurity, dedicating himself to family life, blue-collar work and left-wing politics. But, black-market tapes of these albums made him a counter-culture hero in apartheid-eraSouth Africa, though he never saw a penny.
Even after the albums were re-released in 2009, few knew the man’s work, outside South Africans and music anoraks. But this year’s moving documentary Searching For Sugar Man means he’s now better-known in the West. This gig is the first of hisUK tour, which includes three nights at the Roundhouse – and there’s a lot of love in the room.
Rodriguez, now 70, is helped on-stage looking every inch the 60s survivor, rocking leather trousers, wide-brimmed hat, an impressive mane of hair and dark glasses. But it wouldn’t be a Rodriguez gig without sound problems. He’s using a portable mike, and while his band is sounding good, his vocals sound faint and occasionally cut out – until a roadie sets him up with a microphone several songs in, to widespread cheers.
The set spans the majority of both albums and the occasional cover, including rock’n'roll chestnut ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, a bluesy take on Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ and reflective Sinatra ballad ‘Learning the Blues’, his final encore. A swinging drummer, Dan Moore’s rich Blonde on Blonde organ sound and some fluid country-tinged guitar from Stew Jackson provide able support for his occasionally hesitant vocals.
Musically, the songs cover a lot of ground and have aged pretty well. ‘Only Good For Conversation’ rocks like a bastard, anthem I Wonder sparks a mass singalong, and a lovely jazzy ballad mid-set showcases some of his strongest singing. There is angry finger-pointing (‘Hate Street’, ‘Cold Fact’), Santana-esque Latin jamming and wounded-lover melancholy.
He’s pretty funny, too, in his laid-back way, telling an unrepeatable joke about Minnie Mouse and wearing his hero status lightly. He may be fraying slightly at the edges, but after all these years, Rodriguez has finally achieved recognition. Let’s hope that, this time round, he gets paid.
sugarman.org (official website)
Discovering ‘Sugar Man’ Rodriguez: www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-18974892