If you don’t know the story of Rodriguez yet, then don’t read this – go and watch this year’s amazing documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then come back to us. For those who know the tale behind the man, you may still be in a sense of awe that he is here: one half a seventy-year-old man, slightly stooped and with failing eye sight; one half an absolute legend.
Sixto Rodriguez is playing his second major gig of the week in London at Royal Festival Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival, just a few days after taking to the stage at the Roundhouse. On first glance, the crowd seem wary of his weakness as he’s brought on stage by his daughter. But the rapturous applause, maybe the most noise the walls of this usually cautious venue has ever heard, seem to lift him. When the guitar, the shades and the hat go on, this slight man from Detroit, the son of Mexican immigrants who’s worked his fingers to the bone in manual labour most of his life, turns into the superstar he always was… even though he never knew it.
Without surprise, most of the crowd tonight is South African – the nation that bootlegged the music of this 1970s folk soul singer and took him to their heart, without ever finding out who he really was. He became a star, fuelled by the myth that he was dead, having apparently set himself on fire or shot himself on stage.
Rodriguez was a mystery and he still kind of is. As he plays songs from ‘Cold Fact’, the album that formed most of the soundtrack for Searching for Sugar Man, he seems to want to keep himself to himself. He doesn’t speak a word, instead letting his soft and soulful tones, sitting somewhere between Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, do the work. His crowd don’t mind. They give him space. And when one audience member shouts his love, the whole room erupts with Sixto’s reply of "Well, I love you too," and a thank you to South Africa for having faith in him when everyone else seemed to pass him by.
Accompanied by guitarist and keys of the superb Phantom Limb - the Bristol-based country soul group that supported tonight - a percussionist and bass player, Rodriguez makes his way through the songs that were the soundtrack for so many South Africans, from ‘Crucify Your Mind’, 'This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst’, and the jolly, '60s psych-pop inspired ‘I Wonder’. The cheers are immense.
But it isn’t until a random joke that this audience really connects to Rodriguez before he plays the beautiful ‘I Think of You’. Thank God for Micky Mouse and fucking Goofy!
Lovers of his few recordings may miss the intimacy of those songs here: the cello, the strings, the flutterings of brass and flute, like a vintage Michael Kiwanuka. They’ve been stripped out for these shows, but the songs still stand up as hidden masterpieces in this rawer form. The band, holding back on their own talents a bit to support an aging and ailing Rodriguez, is supportive and gracious. The man himself can still play, albeit a little quietly and a little out of time occasionally. It doesn’t matter.
‘Inner City Blues’ goes down a storm, as does a version of ‘Fever’ in tribute to Detroit. ‘Sugar Man’, of course, gets the biggest cheer of the night and a standing ovation despite it being the weakest of the night vocally, with Rodriguez slightly struggling on the higher notes, while Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ has people dancing in the aisles and grown men hugging each other with pure joy. One even storms the stage and looks like he's having the best time of his life! This really is a dream come true for so many.
“It was worth the years of waiting,” someone shouts, to be met with: “I know it’s bullshit, but keep it coming baby.” This guy is so cool!
By the end, it’s like Rodriguez never wants to leave the stage and his audience could listen to him all over again. He treats us to his only solo song of the night – a brave and sweet offering for his last number.
This is so much more than a gig. It’s a thank you from both parties, with an atmosphere full of love and admiration. Tonight, Rodriguez effectively came back from the dead, and he made so many people happy.
Words by Gemma Hampson
Photos by Stephen Fourie