sat 09/12/2023

Rodriguez, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Rodriguez, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Rodriguez, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The spirit of Sugar Man finally wins through on a night of occasional brilliance

Rodriguez: the joy of Sixtothe_junes

We surely all know the story of Sixto Rodriguez by now. The Detroit-born singer-songwriter made two fine albums in the early 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, before swiftly vanishing.

As he descended into obscurity his music slowly rose to find its audience, most notably in South Africa, where he became a star in absentia and a blank canvas upon which numerous outlandish myths could be projected: he was in jail for murder; he was a heroin addict; he was dead; he had committed suicide on stage.

The recent documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of his musical resurrection in compelling fashion, and at 70 Rodriguez is making the most of his late-blossoming fame, which keeps finding fresh sources of sustenance without him having to do very much at all. There has been no new album for four decades, but on the back of the success of the film the venues on this tour are bigger, and the sense of anticipation palpable. If the singer is now approaching legendary status, the music in many ways is playing only a supporting role.

His backing group, Bristolian country-soul band Phantom Limb, were certainly kept on their toes

For most of this partisan audience, liberally sprinkled with South Africans, just seeing him in the flesh appeared to be enough. He walked slowly on stage to a mighty ovation and 80 minutes later left to an ever bigger one. There were certainly several moments in between that justified the rarefied atmosphere of unfiltered adoration, but also some rather perfunctory performances of so-so songs which went a way to explaining why Rodriguez never quite made it in the first place.

Dressed in leather trousers, leather waistcoat and shades, his long dark hair flowing from beneath a dandy hat, the standard-issue rock star rig-out belied the apparent frailty of a man who had to be helped on stage due to his poor eyesight. There was nothing weak, however, about his excellent, idiosyncratic rhythm guitar playing, nor his voice, which worked best when it snapped and crackled, as on the coolly furious “Establishment Blues” and “Can’t Get Away”. When something more nuanced was required on the tender “I Think of You” or a terrifically odd cover of “It Was Just One of Those Things“, the demands tended to stretch his capabilities.

Rodriguez has frequently been compared to prime period Bob Dylan and you can hear why: his voice has the same accusatory edge and his words can be similarly striking. On stage there were also similarities to the Dylan of more recent times in the manner in which he seemed to have arrived without giving the evening’s entertainment a moment’s prior thought. His backing group, Bristolian country-soul band Phantom Limb, were certainly kept on their toes. At the end of each song his guitarist leaned in to discover what they were going to play next. He then transmitted the necessary information to the rest of the musicians. Unsurprisingly, the result was that many of the performances seemed both speculative and tentative. Like the songs, like the records, like his entire career in fact, the gig seemed constantly on the edge of falling apart. Not in a shower of spectacular fireworks, but in a slightly desultory fashion evocative of a slow day in a dusty rehearsal room.

Possessed of a wry wit and a dazzling smile, Rodriguez offered some cheesy wisdom from the late Sixties - “free love is too expensive” - and a silly gag involving Minnie Mouse cheating on poor Mickey, but as a performer he had a slightly distracted air. Things only really clicked when he focused sufficiently to match the standard of his best songs, which are superb. Live, the exquisitely catchy “I Wonder” sounded even more like a long-lost classic. The beautiful “Like Janis” did indeed bear comparison with anything Dylan recorded between 1965 and 1967. His signature anthem “Sugar Man” was a trifle overblown but the sharp arrangement possessed an awareness of dynamics lacking from many other songs. The closing “Forget It” was perfectly judged - sparse, brief and moving. He returned for an encore ready to ball, rocking through “Blue Suede Shoes” and a rousing “Like a Rolling Stone”, where he forgot a few words but expertly located the song’s spirit. How did it feel? Pretty fine in the end, but it took a while.

Like the songs, like the records, like his entire career in fact, the gig seemed constantly on the edge of falling apart


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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graeme, Your writing is very good, however, your words suck. Rodriguez is 70+ years old. I'd like to see you perform at 70---how good will your writing be? Quit looking at the trees----focus on the entire forest of Rodriguez!!!!

I completely agree. I have rarely experienced so much energy floating in a concert than with the songs performed by Rodriguez. He is a true musician, trying to share and contribute his energetic voice and style, comparable to Bob Dylan, who really cares. Of course, he played even one of his songs, but he is Rodriguez, he is doing his music and lived it;

The movie was one of the most moving films I have seen in a very long time. Such a quiet, peaceful, humble, private man whose talents, I feel, rivals those of Bob Dylan, has lived in obscurity for over 40 years, appears to be the antithesis of the American dream ... hard work does not necessarily get you anywhere.

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