Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Sufficiently Peculiar Review #2

Rodriguez @ Bowery Ballroom, NYC
Friday, May 15th, 2009

By Miles Kowitt

It is a now legendary story of VH1 Behind the Music proportions; Mexican-born Detroit-based singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez, now aged 67, comes out of a 30-year period of obscurity and receives long-overdue international acclaim. In 1970, with his name only known in the sleaziest dive bars on the darkest streets of the Motor City, Rodriguez, a then 20-something upstart, recorded an album with Motown session aces and inked a record deal with Hollywood-based Sussex Records. That album, Cold Fact, proved to be a psychedelic folk-rock masterpiece peppered with eclectic and often apocalyptic musical flourishes offering biting social observations about class, race, gender and equality in American culture. Of course, the album was doomed to obscurity here in the U.S., but somehow wound up on the shores of such far-flung places as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. A trip to the U.K. was arranged and Rodriguez found himself in Lansdowne Recording Studios in early-70’s London with a crack producer and top session men. His sophomore album, Coming From Reality, was released in late 1971 on Sussex with high hopes, but again disappeared without a trace.

His music career abandoned, Rodriguez became a blue-collar man back in Detroit and worked construction and hard-labor jobs for a meager paycheck. By this time, the idea of making music again, let alone touring, seemed as far away to him as the mountains of Mars. All the while, his album Cold Fact became a staple of rock record collections in South Africa, nestled comfortably between the Beatles and Dylan and blaring out of dorm rooms and car speakers all across that country. A pretty, young South African woman at the show said, “To me his album will always be summer camp in the countryside with red wine and really good pot.”

True enough, several South Africans at the New York show shockingly knew every word to those songs, singing and bopping their heads as if they had lived and breathed those songs. In fact, those songs were part of the soundtrack to their lives, despite the cold fact that very few record buyers here even knew who Rodriguez was. But the wheel of history is an uncanny mechanism and turns in the most unexpected ways. Out of the blue, a promoter contacted Rodriguez about doing some shows in South Africa. Thinking he’d play a few dive bars for chump change and drink some free booze, he agreed to the tour. When he arrived, he found himself and his hastily assembled band booked into a 25,000-seat arena playing to a packed house of adoring fans. Now both of his albums have been re-released here in the U.S on reissue label Light in the Attic, and have received rave reviews, picking up new fans along the way. Thus, several decades late (but better late than never as they say), Rodriguez is finally on tour in America.

On this particular night, Rodriguez took the stage with his band of razor-sharp twenty-something musicians: a three-piece horn section, a rock solid drummer, a fluent lead guitarist filling out the sound nicely, a very capable female keyboardist and a bassist who seemingly served as band leader and also as Rodriguez’s personal escort. Clearly, the years have been rough for the singer-songwriter; he walked slowly with an apparently painful limp, led to his perch at center-stage by the aforementioned bassist. Donning a dark pair of blind man’s shades and a black-brimmed hat with black, straggly hair flowing out from under his hat, Rodriguez looked more like a seedy East L.A. street urchin than a celebrated performer about to play to a fairly packed house of old and new fans.

After an anxious few minutes of on-stage acclimation and impromptu band introductions at the singer’s behest, the band launched into the first number of the evening “Only Good for Conversation.” Within moments, the song took off like a rocket into a psychedelically charged stratosphere with screaming lead guitars and an almost Sabbath-like crunching breakdown, involving the audience more than just as mere spectators but as participants in a riot, pushing back against invisible barriers. The singer summoned all the rage he could muster from the turbulent 60’s to present-day struggles, spitting out the biting lyric “My statue’s got a concrete heart, but you’re the coldest bitch I know.”

The band maintained a consistent groove as they ran through storming versions of most of the tracks on Cold Fact with just a few from the newly reissued sophomore album. His classic drug-song “Sugarman” sounded edgier and almost post-modern, sans the queasy strings of the album version. Between-song banter and accessory adjustments took up a lot of time but never really took away from the show itself. Instead, they allowed the audience a glimpse into the fragility of an eccentric and often misunderstood artist at work, in his element. At times, however, one wondered whether this man would make it through the set, stripping down to a black wife-beater to reveal somewhat muscular arms built on Detroit construction sites and swilling down cupfuls of red wine procured from eager fans. Curiously, he would take his hat off, rustle his fingers through the greasy strands of hair, stagger nervously about and look as if about to keel over and pass out right there on the stage; but then, as if touched by some deep inner spirit, he would place his hat back on his head, his fingers finding the right chords on his guitar and the other hand miraculously beginning to strum, haphazardly at first, his voice cracking a little, but finally finding his way into the tune. The set closed with “Forget It” which begins with the lyrics, “But thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, and after that’s said, forget it.” Surely, no better song could sum up the pent-up bitterness and regret of his formerly side-lined music career.

Rodriguez came out by himself for the encore, which for me, was really the most magical and revealing section of the entire show. He played two songs on his battered semi-acoustic guitar, showing him to be vulnerable yet dignified. The first song “I’m Gonna Live” he introduced by addressing his mature age, telling the audience, “There’s only one age and that’s…alive!” He closed the evening with the Etta James classic “At Last” which ended the evening on a poignant note. A gracious and genuinely humble performer, he seemed truly surprised at his recent success, telling the audience, “It is an honor, a privilege…man, I’m impressed by all of you.” He bowed to the audience and was led slowly off stage by one of his lovingly protective band members.

After this performance, one has to wonder what’s next for the man: a world tour, some new songs, a new album perhaps? With Rodriguez, like all truly great artists, you get the sense that it takes a while for the world to catch up to where he is at; but now that it has, there’s no telling what he might do next.

Both Cold Fact and Coming from Reality are available through Light in the Attic Records.

*****Also, check out Rodriguez's set on - ed.

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