The old, nearly blind shaman slowly crossed the stage, holding his daughter’s supportive hand to enter the dimmed spotlight. After taking his seat center stage, the almost mythic singer-songwriter Rodriguez immediately looked more at home when he put on a white straw hat and took his guitar in hand, and the show was off.
Last Wednesday night, Rodriguez played at the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead. The musician is probably best known in the United States for being the subject of the 2012 film Searching for Sugar Man, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In his music career, Rodriguez recorded two classic albums of psychedelic folk rock that featured his profound counterculture lyrics, Cold Fact
(1970) and Coming From Reality (1971), which garnered critical acclaim in the U.S., but little in the way of financial success. The recordings proved successful in Australia, where Rodriguez toured in 1979, but other than that tour, he had for all intents and purposes retired from music and gone about an unassuming working-class life in the United States. It wasn’t until a group of diehard South African fans tracked him down in the mid-1990s (as recounted in Searching for Sugar Man) that he found out his recordings were hugely popular in their country, where his anti-establishment, political songs resonated with a generation of young, white conscripted soldiers who had grown disenchanted with the Apartheid government (whose censors banned Rodriguez).
Rodriguez was in good voice for Wednesday’s concert, sounding much like he did as a younger man on his records. One might hypothesize that this is a benefit of his being denied the rock stardom he deserved in his youth and thereby being spared the hazardous excesses of such a lifestyle and the years of live performance which can deteriorate the voice. For the set list Rodriguez supplemented the material from his two albums with a selection of covers of pop and rock standards. After choosing the white straw hat on the table next to him rather than the other black hat, he explained that the hats have particular personalities. He then opened with a solo acoustic rendition of “Your Song,” looking vaguely reminiscent, with his hat and glasses, of Elton John on the cover of his 1974 Greatest Hits album. The awkward tension of kicking off the show with an acoustic solo that left the band standing there, holding their instruments, had me on the edge of my seat. As “Your Song” wrapped up, the band members, a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, kicked into the decidedly harder rocking Cold Fact classic “Only Good for Conversation.”
Rodriguez did justice to a number of songs off his albums, including his best known song “Sugar Man.” He provided an amusing commentary, warning that “Sugar Man” described a reality of drug dealing and purchasing but did not advocate such endeavors, and, after a solid performance of another relatively famous one of his songs, “I Wonder,” joked that he wondered but did not want to know the answers to the questions in the song.
The show also contained numerous surprising quirks. In “Inner City Blues,” the distinctive beeping sound effect present on the Cold Fact album was mimicked live by the drummer who had a percussion instrument like a special type of cowbell to hit the approximate tone. For one of his songs about the wealthy versus the poor, Rodriguez took off the white straw hat and grabbed a do-rag out of his shirt pocket to wear, giving him the personality of one of the street toughs in his songs. After that he changed his glasses to a pair of something like night-vision goggles that gave him an almost alien look as the green lights filled the space of his eyes.
One of the best performances was his placid, longing rendition of “I Think of You,” off Coming From Reality. He also appropriately closed out his initial set prior to the encore with the Cold Fact breakup song “Forget It,” which says in the lyrics, “thanks for your time \ and you can thank me for mine \ and after that’s said \ forget it.” But there could be no forgetting after such a performance, and the audience gave a several-minute-long standing ovation demanding that he come back out on stage. When Rodriguez came back on stage, he had taken off the white shirt and black vest he had had on earlier and wore a black hat and a tank top as cool as his songs. He performed renditions of the ‘60s rock classics “Light My Fire” by the Doors and “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane in an interesting rearrangement. Having earlier performed in the concert the pop standards “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “On the Street Where You Live,” Rodriguez closed out the encore with a stirring rendition of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” which came to a rocking conclusion as Rodriguez arose from his stool to rock out on the interplay with his lead guitarist. Having taken his final bow, Rodriguez left his audience with the enduring message: “Power to the people!” with a fist raised in solidarity.
Regardless of whether he played ballads or rock songs, what stuck out through the whole show was Rodriguez’s ultra-chill composure and persona. Between songs Rodriguez did not talk a whole lot, but when he did he spoke very gently as though he were the embodiment of the humility and wisdom that comes with living the type of hard-knock life he has had for most of his 75 years. He is a man who has long held the idealistic dreams of the hippie-era and been humbled by the stark, conservative realities, which have since that time squelched any such dreams. In the intervening years between his early retirement from music and rediscovery, Rodriguez managed to earn a degree in philosophy and even ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Detroit city office. He beautifully condensed the complexity of the human condition into the basic statements that people are highly emotionally sensitive beings, that love and hate are extremely powerful forces, and that we should be aware of these things in our interactions and act kindly toward each other.