Given the build-up over the Oscar Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man -- the reason Sixto Rodriguez is only now getting his due, and the reason for a surprisingly large Mesa Amphitheatre audience -- it seemed only fitting that the street poet and alternative folk-icon would open the show with three songs that didn't even make the documentary's soundtrack.
Those three rocking, gritty, fuzzy, and edgily psychedelic songs introduced many in attendance to an even more unknown side of Rodriguez and only highlighted the untapped potential of a musician given up by many as dead when commercial failure ended his musical career and relegated him to a "normal" life as a Detroit laborer.
Working with an unnamed three-piece band, Rodriguez moved through all elements of his career, tapping songs from his two commercial albums, Cold Fact and Coming in From Reality, as well as some unexpected cover choices, including "Lucille," "Blue Suede Shoes," and a fuzzy garage rocker, Little Willie John's "Fever."
Those songs elicited a collective "why?" People came to hear this mysterious artist return to the politically and socially astute songs that belatedly made him famous, not early rock 'n' roll classics any band could replicate.
But everyone clearly got what he or she came for. After his three deep cuts, Rodriguez moved into his most recognizable composition, "I Wonder," which became a rallying cry for anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and a regional smash hit for which he saw no royalties. Like most of the songs he performed off the documentary soundtrack, "I Wonder" earned huge crowd approval.
Part of what made seeing Rodriquez in concert so interesting was how different many of the songs sounded without the rich studio orchestration layered on by Sussex label owner and producer Dennis Coffey. In the cozy amphitheatre, stripped down to their basic elements, the songs had more urgency, intimacy and emotion.
This also allowed the band a chance to add nuanced inflections into the songs, giving many slightly new shapes. Hearing these songs in this context brings up a second "why?" That is, why was this man not successful when his albums were originally released, more than 40 years ago?
But here he is now, achieving the success that eluded him previously, with songs that are as relevant today as they were back when. Though his voice became a little shaky later in the performance, early on Rodriguez was spot-on, tumbling through a laid-back "City Without a Heart," a mid-tempo (but right on) "Can't Get Away," a raw "Crucify Your Mind," a punky, tough-folk version of "Street Boy" -- originally slated for a third album that never came out -- and, of course, the dirty-pop masterpiece "Sugar Man."
Dressed all in black, with leather pants and vest, hat, and biker boots, Rodriguez said little to the crowd. But he did toss off the occasional one-liner -- "I'm a solid 70" or "So, I had hoped for a woman pope."
This audience laugh-inducer led into the brilliant protest song, "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues," which flows like Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while challenging the status quo of corrupt politicians, cheating housewives, war, soldiers, drug use, pollution, and smoking.
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Rodriguez finished the set with "Forget It," and the appropriate lyrics: "Thanks for your time / Then you can thank me for mine." Returning to the stage a few moments later, he began with Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Here the comparison to the Great Bob didn't seem like such a stretch. But either way, Rodriguez was clearly an individual. He finished the night like an old crooner, going out with Frank Sinatra's "Nice N' Easy."
It was a fine finish to a fine evening from a musician who inexplicably fell through the cracks. Rediscovered, thankfully, Rodriguez looked happy to return to the stage and delight new audiences, which he more than accomplished on Saturday.
Last Night: Sixto Rodriguez, street poet and gritty folk artist.
Personal bias: Deep, insightful lyrics and simple songs with psychedelic elements are always a winner.
The crowd: An older audience who could have, but probably didn't, see Rodriquez back in the early 1970s.
Random notebook dump: His voice sounds a bit fragile in reaching for the high notes, but hell, nothing is stopping him after all these years of waiting.
Overheard: From the guy sitting next to me: "Why is he doing all these covers when he has enough of his own material to play for two hours?"