Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Call off the search: Rodriguez at the Zenith, Paris

In our cynical, seen-it-all-before, want it now, needed it yesterday, over-savvy age, a film as profoundly uplifting as Searching For Sugar Man could so easily have been dismissed into the depths of obscurity its subject, Rodriguez, spent the best part of four decades.

If you still haven't seen Searching For Sugar Man, I won't completely spoil the full enjoyment of it here with the details, save to say you would have to be a terminally miserable bugger not walk home from a screening of Malik Bendjelloul's utterly heartwarming documentary, about Sixto Rodriguez, with a smile on your face and, for a couple of hours at least, the feeling that all can be good in this world.

Which is really what brought French fans of all ages out for the second of three nights in Paris to see the Mexican-American folk singer who released just two albums, in 1970 and 1971, which sank without trace elsewhere, but managed to maintain the democracy movement in South Africa.

When the tour dates were first announced, I - along with almost everyone else buying tickets, I suspect - almost felt a sense of duty to attend.

At 70, and in less than perfect health or wellbeing, on the principal of 'soonest given, soonest given away', this was to be our only opportunity to share in the phenomenon captured in Bendjelloul's deservedly Oscar-winning film.

Searching For Sugar Man successfully presented Rodriguez as something between a cult and national folk hero in South Africa. He was characterised as a guitar-strumming Mandela, imprisoned by the injustices of music industry greed and his own self-questioning of a system that had not only deprived him of the riches of his contemporaries, but had denied him further opportunities to exploit the songwriting talents clearly audible in those two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality.

Thus, the opportunity to put money into the bare coffers that have kept Rodriguez in near breadline poverty for all these years, has - admittedly - induced a somewhat pious spirit, but also one of genuine warmth from the crowds that came to the enlarged school sports hall that is the Zenith.

There is a palpable sense of affection from the audience as the near-blind Rodriguez is helped onstage by one of his daughters. This is no affectation, no James Brown gimmick. As the night wears on it's clear that Sixto's eyesight is so poor he can hardly find the microphone in front of him.

Clad in black, from floppy hat to toe, Rodriguez and band launches into Climb Up On My Music, affording his backing musicians the first opportunity of the evening to let loose like a carefully restrained Doors-style wigout.

Only Good For Conversation follows, with the line "My statue's got a concrete heart, but you're the coldest bitch I know!" given an extra-special vibrancy. With Crucify Your Mind next, Rodriguez has already worked through three of the songs that have made his two albums belatedly acclaimed for their lyrical and melodic colour.

It is, sadly, on this third song of the evening that the health issues that forced Rodriguez to cancel two dates last week in Spain and Portugal come to the fore. His voice is clearly struggling - despite cups of some medical beverage - and he only draws attention to this by attempting a cover of I Only Have Eyes For You.

What may have appeared to be a one-off frog in the throat continues through the evening. To their credit - and with the exception of one or two idiots - the audience demonstrates remarkable tolerance, even encouraging Rodriguez to carry on.

Alternating between covers (including a brave stab at La Vie En Rose) and his own material, the crowd's affectionate encouragement carries him through each number, even when it appears the set list Rodriguez is following is in his head, and not necessarily the set the band are meant to be following.

Sugar Man earns rapturous appreciation, as does I Wonder, the anachronisms of its words being lost totally in the waves of goodwill being thrown stageward. Other acapella or guitar-accompanied covers, like the standard Love Me Or Leave Me and even Unchained Melody, suffer badly but are kept afloat by the crowd's determination to see Rodriguez through it, it being a surprisingly good cover of Like A Rolling Stone, a knowing choice for a man inevitably described as "the Chicano Dylan".

It would be wrong to dwell too much on the malady of the evening. For anyone else - and especially an A-lister - the crowd would have revolted and demanded their money back long before the encore. But Rodriguez is a truly fascinating figure in musical history, who could have walked on stage and repeatedly read out a bus timetable for an hour and still had the crowd willing him on to the end.

Perhaps I'm too generous in not viewing Rodriguez objectively: there are plenty of other performers in or about their 70s - the Stones, McCartney, Roger Waters - still out there performing to the highest standards. Perhaps, too, we came to the Zenith to celebrate the character's backstory, rather than the character today. Perhaps we came to take our hats off to a humility that maintained Rodriguez through his years of obscurity, eeking out a living doing manual labour, apparently unperturbed by what might have been. But if nothing else at least we can now say: "we found the Sugar Man".

1 comment:

  1. Well said, sir, with such a poignant truth resounding in your last words. An amazing story, this man Sixto Rodriguez, living his golden years with deferred recognition and fame, albeit untimely, though, as his voice is now to falter.
    Thank you for acknowledging an audience, too, gracious and forgiving, that knew why they were there.