6/04/2014

Rodriguez: A Rich Vein of Unadorned Integrity

The life story of Sixto Rodriguez, the Mexican-American singer and songwriter who released two excellent albums in the early 1970s, but whose music remained mostly unknown for the next four decades, is a tale of both sadness and inspiration. Sadness, because he was denied his rightful chance at fame when he was young, and because his deserving songs were not heard for such a long time. Inspiration, because he kept faith with his own talent and, in the end, did receive the renown and the recompense to which he was fully entitled. The venerable musician, who goes by his last name and now is in his seventies, came to the stage of Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, on the evening of May 24, 2014, and proved that his enduring compositions have succeeded in transcending the bounds of worldly hardship.

Rodriguez began writing and singing his songs in the late 1960s, performing in bars and clubs in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. His first album, Cold Fact, was released on Sussex Records in 1970, followed by Coming from Reality in 1971. Unfortunately, both albums failed to sell (although Rodriguez was favorably compared to Bob Dylan), and by the middle of the 1970s, Rodriguez had disappeared from public view, finding work as a laborer to support his family. In 1979 and 1981, he undertook brief tours in Australia, after which he returned to his humble life in Detroit. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music had gained a huge following in South Africa, where unauthorized releases of his recordings were selling in the hundreds of thousands. (Rodriguez did not receive any royalties from those releases.) In 1998, after several South African fans had tracked down Rodriguez and informed him of his fame in their country, he did his first tour of South Africa, where he was treated as a major star.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the music of Rodriguez finally began to be more widely known, and a feature-length documentary about him was released in 2012, which happily (if somewhat belatedly) turned Rodriguez into a famous figure throughout the world. The film, Searching for Sugar Man (directed by Malik Bendjelloul, a Swedish filmmaker who took his own life in Stockholm, in May, 2014, shortly before Rodriguez came to Portland), opened a number of doors for the dogged singer, greatly increasing his stature and allowing him to sing his songs to new audiences. Since the release of the film, Rodriguez has been able to undertake frequent tours, regularly performing at crowded venues in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, garnering high praise at every stop.

He arrived onstage in Portland with someone gently leading him by the hand (apparently due to his extremely poor eyesight, also the likely reason for his habit of always wearing dark glasses), holding his acoustic guitar across his chest and slowly taking one careful step after another, until he was ready to make his stand at the microphone. Rodriguez carries an air of mystery about him, a mystery that is essential to his current appeal. He quietly projects a firm seriousness of purpose, and when he deigns to speak, his words come sparingly and deliberately, as if, given a choice, he would prefer not to speak at all. His voice, sounding just as strong as it does on his recordings from four decades ago, has a reedy quality that provides him with a perfect means of expressing the wisdom and weariness of his thoughtful songs.

Rodriguez began his set with "Climb Up on My Music," the first track on Coming from Reality. With backing from a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, he proceeded to sing other songs from his albums, with "Like Janis," "Inner City Blues," "I Wonder," "Street Boy," and "Forget It" being highlights. After he sang "Sugar Man," a desperate entreaty from a junkie to a dealer ("Silver magic ships you carry/Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane") and one of his most powerful songs, he slyly cautioned the audience, saying, "That song is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive." He also lent his abilities to a handful of well-chosen covers, with "Love Me or Leave Me," "Fever," "Lucille," "I Only Have Eyes for You," and "Learnin' the Blues," harking back to his younger days in the dives of Detroit. When he closed with a final cover, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," it was clear that he meant every word.

Rodriguez is a straightforward performer, not inclined to offer much in the way of flashy showmanship. His particular brand of performance, generally delivered in an offhand manner, without any overt tokens of contrivance, can sometimes appear to be unduly meager and unnecessarily succinct. Nevertheless, in Portland, his local fans responded warmly and, at certain moments, even wildly, to the unwavering directness of his blunt style. What Rodriguez does offer to an audience is sturdy music, containing a rich vein of unadorned integrity: imaginative observations and sharp-witted honesty, alongside a deep feeling of unfeigned humility, combining to define his character as a musician and as a man. With Rodriguez, any hint of falseness or pretense is out of the question.