Rodriguez, the missing-then-found star of the hit documentary Searching for Sugar Man, opened his August 31st show at New York's Highline Ballroom – his first major local concert since the film's release in July – with a pair of curveballs: covers of the Flamingos' 1959 doo-wop classic "I Only Have Eyes for You" and a 1967 single, "Dead End Street," by R&B singer Lou Rawls. Dressed in total black, including a fedora with a brim so wide it hid much of his face for most of the night, Rodriguez played both oldies as if he was still soundchecking: settling into the room, measuring the curiosity and patience of his audience.
The sold-out crowd was anticipating the original songs featured on his soundtrack album, Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Legacy), and first issued on the Detroit-born, Mexican-American singer-songwriter's only studio LPs, 1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality (both reissued in 2008 by Light in the Attic Records). Guided to his microphone by an assistant, appearing solo with just a quietly charismatic voice and an acoustic guitar strummed in unhurried funky-samba time, Rodriguez, who turned 70 in July, seemed unsteady in the glare for those early minutes. He is a phantom – rumored, unseen, imagined dead – in most of his own movie. The initial impression tonight was of a newly minted legend in a late-learning stage, adrift in the applause and expectation without a band to fill in the space and projection.
Cold Facts, Perfect Timing
But Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (his full name) is a man who does everything on time – his own. At Highline, the singer creeped decisively into his old material: stepping back from the mike to tune his guitar, then starting Cold Fact's "Inner City Blues" as if whispering it to himself, testing its readiness before turning up the volume. It was a sly magnetism, drawing you into the balance and knockout of his eerily Dylanesque voice – more sensual, with less slice and twang – and treacherous straight talk in the Cold Fact cross-examination "I Wonder" and the addict's sigh "Sugar Man."
Rodriguez has had a lifetime to perfect his patience. After the commercial failure of his two albums in the U.S., he turned away from music – to construction work, family life and a bachelor's degree in philosophy – unaware that the moral spine and folk-soul charm of his records made him a mysterious superstar to young disaffected whites in apartheid South Africa in the Seventies. Searching for Sugar Man chronicles the late-Nineties efforts of two determined fans there to find their idol and climaxes with concert footage of Rodriguez's first South African tour in 1998, backed by adoring local musicians. "Thanks for keeping me alive," he tells a rapturous audience in the film with impressive Zen-like poise, actually sounding more assured than stunned by his delayed celebrity.
Secrets of Life and Love
It was, once he set his tone and pace at the Highline, an hour over too quick. Rodriguez played 14 songs, including covers of Little Willie John's "Fever" and Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes." He made several tough-love cracks about his home town. And Rodriguez kept up a running conversation with the audience, with a remarkable soft-spoken control that made you wonder why, when he boldly ran for mayor of Detroit at one point during his wilderness years, he didn't win in a landslide.
"Do you know what the secret to life is?" Rodriguez asked at one point. "Just keep breathing in and out." He laughed along with everyone else, then added, "And the secret to love?" Rodriguez let the question hang in the air for a second, knowing the crowd expected another joke. "Don't be a secret partner," he advised, dropping the line like a tender bomb, then delivering the end-of-days vision in Cold Fact's "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues" with a firm shot of hurry-up in his voice.
There was no encore. Rodriguez ended the show with "Forget It" from Cold Fact, a contradiction of gratitude and self-worth – "Thanks for your time/ Then you can thank me for mine" – that captured, in light terse miniature, the extraordinary faith Rodriguez had in 1970, in himself and the audience he knew was out there somewhere, and never lost. Searching for Sugar Man covers only the first stage of his improbable, deserved and heartwarming resurrection. At the Highline, it was obvious: The joy and sharing are just getting started again.