By: Jim Welte
Rodriguez :: 11.23.08 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
It's almost asking too much of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez to match the marvel of his back story with a concert nearly four decades after the release of his last album. The Detroit psychedelic folk-soul singer, dubbed "an urban Bob Dylan" in the late 1960s, saw his life as a professional musician come to a halt in 1972 after poor record sales. But after a surge in popularity in far-flung places like Australia and South Africa in recent years, Rodriguez has been enjoying an unexpected revival in 2008.
Rodriguez specialized in pure urban poetry in the late '60s and early '70s, focusing on what he knew best: The underbelly of Detroit, and the societal and economic conditions that fostered its seediness. The songs were built around simple, mostly catchy melodies that allowed plenty of room for raw, brutally honest lyrics, like those on "Establishment Blues": "Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected/ Politicians using, people they're abusing/ The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river/ And you tell me that this is where it's at."
But neither of Rodriguez's two exceptional albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, sold well. Coupled with record label misfortune and Rodriguez's eccentricities - he often performed with his back to the audience and wasn't interested in heavy touring - his career ended prematurely. By 1971, he had enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit and began grabbing manual labor jobs to support his family, everything from roofing to demolition. He also worked at a gas station and ran for local office in Detroit several times.
Then a strange phenomenon developed, years before Chris Anderson's famed Long Tail theory suggested that the Internet would boost sales of a large number of lesser-known products just like Rodriguez's albums. Through bootlegging and word of mouth, Rodriguez became a hit in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, particularly among young people in the South African armed forces, who identified with his counter-cultural bent.
In 1979, eight years after he had played his last show, Rodriguez sold out 16 concert halls in Australia and then returned two years later to do it again on a tour with Midnight Oil. More than 15 years later, with rumors swirling in South Africa that Rodriguez had long since died of a heroin overdose or was in prison for murdering his girlfriend, a journalist tracked him down, alive and well and wondering why he'd never seen a penny in royalties for the popularity of his music a world away.
Rodriguez did a triumphant, sold out tour of South Africa in 1998, and the documentary, Dead Men Don't Tour: Rodriguez in South Africa 1998 chronicled the tour. Four years later, British producer David Holmes discovered Cold Fact in a New York record store and put "Sugar Man," Rodriguez's deliriously soulful track about pushers and their products, on his Come Get It, I Got It compilation, re-recording the song with Rodriguez for his Free Association project a year later. Matt Sullivan, head of Seattle-based label Light in the Attic, heard the track and immediately set about securing the rights to reissue Cold Fact, which he did this year.
|Rodriguez by Konny Rodriguez|
With a bounty of newfound attention, Rodriguez has been playing select U.S. dates in recent weeks, including a stop in San Francisco. When the lanky singer strode onto the stage at the Great American Music Hall, head to toe in black and wearing shades, a top hat and a peace sign belt buckle, he certainly looked the part. He was backed by San Francisco musician Tim Cohen's latest band, The Fresh & Onlys, a 10-piece group that included a full horn section. A nearly packed house was eager to be transported to 1960s Detroit in the hands of a singer who'd garnered a mythical status among crate diggers.
You couldn't ask for a better batch of songs to hear live. From the stripped-down version of "Sugar Man" to the night's most bombastic track, "Only Good For Conversation," the songs were so good and so emblematic of their era that the nearly one-hour set was enjoyable. But decades of living real life, with only sporadic and brief tours Down Under and to South Africa mixed in, are not the best way to maintain your chops, and Rodriguez was plenty rusty. His voice didn't have the power to soar on the tunes where he was joined by the full band. His stage presence was as awkward as you'd expect from someone who hasn't spent much time on a stage in recent years. Also not surprisingly, he wasn't well connected to his band on this night, stopping one tune midway in order to play the sweet solo ballad "I Think of You."
This was one of those shows that you were happy it even happened, satisfied that a talented artist was getting some time in the spotlight, even if it came decades after his zenith. As long as you went into it with that attitude, everything else was gravy. Rodriguez would be hard-pressed to capitalize on the renewed interest in his music with new albums, but he's earned the right to keep showing off the two he's already made.
JamBase | Past Sweetness
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