Rodriguez, the unexpected star of the Oscar winning doc “Searching for Sugar Man” and the folk legend who never was, is not an entertainer. Now at a “solid 70,” his whole life he has not been an entertainer.
“Two cannibals are eating a clown,” he says dryly in between tunes. “The one turns to the other and says, does this taste funny to you?”
This is how Rodriguez felt he had to keep his audience engaged, by punching it up with lame jokes. And that mentality combined with his performance’s whole nature was what made it so beguiling and unique.
His Friday night set at the Arie Crown Theater jumped from acoustic strummer to ballad to bouncy folk rock on a whim, his voice wavered and slowly softened as his 90 minute set wore on, and the far from sold out audience neither sang nor stood as he worked through his “hits.” So was Rodriguez mediocre and not the surprising legend that “Searching for Sugar Man” made him out to be?
Not in the slightest, because it would be wrong to put this 70-year-old on the same level as Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan. He doesn’t have the experience and iconic showmanship they’ve acquired over so long.
What he does still possess however is that mysterious, wise and even timid quality that neither of those superstars would be able to replicate. Here is a guy being walked out onto the stage by two women just to stand and perform for the next hour and a half. Donning the sunglasses and hat that characterized his album covers, he now masks his glaucoma and a difficulty to see. In between each tune, his lead guitarist leans in as though he were a nurse coming to his side.
And yet here he is, his voice identical to recordings from over 40 years ago, capable of intricate strumming and finger picking on his elegant ballads and out of place Cole Porter and Don Gibson covers he seems to have learned on the spot.
To watch Rodriguez perform songs like the bouncy “I Wonder” or the graceful and touching “I Think of You” was to see an elderly grandfather or uncle regale his family with unheard past glories, mystifying and surprising the kids in the audience in the process. He demonstrated his wisdom both spoken and sung, and they in turn shouted more words of encouragement and endearment than you would expect at this sort of intimate performance. Most concerts are community experiences, but rarely have I been to one that felt as welcoming to the performer as this.
“Play songs you want to,” someone shouted along with cries of “I love you” and others. “I know it’s the drinks talking, but I love you too,” he said in return before playing 22 “hits” and covers as if he knew this would be the last time he’d perform them.
Take “Lucille,” a Little Richard cover way out of his vocal range. What Rodriguez lacked in the vocal department he made up with love and mystique as he strummed along without the aid of his band behind him.
The same could be said about his originals. Missing from his set was the orchestra that backed him on Letterman several months back, and his three-piece band was a messy way to add some modern flair to these old songs (the guitarist took a number of extended solos that in another life Rodriguez himself might’ve played). It diminished the intricacy of something like “Crucify Your Mind” but amplified “Sugar Man,” replacing the odd psych orchestration with rapid fire strumming and muscle.
Rodriguez found two perfect closers in “Forget It” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.” He fully acknowledges that this will likely be his first and last real tour. Outside of his “comeback” appearance in Cape Town, this is Rodriguez in his prime. There was no young man period where he had time to become a worn-out legend.
So here he is, not feeling old and tired, but demonstrating that he has and always had a little magic in him.
“I’m not getting old,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “I’m getting dead.”
Climb Up on My Music
Only Good for Conversation
Just One of Those Things (Cole Porter cover)
Inner City Blues
Crucify Your Mind
Love Me Or Leave Me (Billie Holiday cover)
This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst; Or, The Establishment Blues
Dead End Street (Lou Rawls cover)
I Think of You
Lucille (Little Richard cover)
Can’t Get Away
Rich Folks Hoax
To Whom It May Concern
You’d Like to Admit
Sea of Heartbreak (Don Gibson cover)
I Only Have Eyes for You (The Flamingos cover)
I’m Gonna Live Till I Die