A 70-year-old displaying all the gusto of a much younger man, cult figure Rodriguez lights up Camden’s Roundhouse, the first stop on his current UK tour
He made his way onto the stage like an old man being assisted in his walk down the plank. It seemed like he could barely stand and wouldn’t have wanted to even if he could. Then it seemed like he could barely sing. I began to weigh up in my mind how likely it was that in just a few years Rodriguez had gone from being an accomplished performer to a man who was really just doing the rounds while he could, bidding a final farewell to people who would have to go home and reassure each other with the fact that they had at least laid eyes on him.
As it transpired the hitch was more technical than biological. During a pretty undignified microphone rearrangement, his hat and glasses had to be removed and the real Rodriguez was revealed: smiling, bashful, and in possession of more faculties than you could reasonably expect of a 70-year-old man.
His almost unbelievable story of discovery, loss, and re-discovery has created a level of mystique rivalled only by the dead, and helped a great deal by the fact that for some time a lot of people thought he was dead. Wild rumours circulated from the mid-seventies onwards that he had shot or immolated himself on stage after a performance of Forget It (“Thanks for your time / Then you can thank me for mine”). As documented by the brilliant Searching For Sugar Man, while both albums went unnoticed in America, his music resonated with the oppressive and incendiary climate of apartheid South Africa, where half a million copies of Cold Fact provided the soundtrack for a nation’s dissatisfied youth, and he duly became as famous as Elvis and as important as Dylan.
At his 1998 ‘homecoming’ concert in Cape Town, people witnessed nothing short of a resurrection. Many had bought tickets still not believing he would really appear, so when he did, they went understandably insane. Although everybody at the Roundhouse in Camden knew he was alive, it’s probably the closest they’ll ever get to that kind of epiphany. The visual confirmation that this mercurial little man really exists is still a powerful affirmation, even when you already knew that he did. There’s really no substitute for seeing somebody right in front of you.
Consequently, I’m not sure it would have mattered if he’d played one song and walked off, but he strummed and sang his way through protests and stories for an hour and a half, before turning his back on an enraptured crowd, collecting his trademark hat and shuffling off into the darkness. He was sublime. The musicians accompanying him also deserve a very honourable mention. Four superb listeners, they tracked his every move, at times reigning him in from some mathematically implausible time signatures and allowing him to re-run one or two forgotten verses. They beefed up some tracks with heavier keys and electric guitar, but kept the right songs calmer, switching to upright bass and acoustic guitar, allowing Rodriguez to enjoy the limelight. After all, that’s why we were there, and it’s difficult to think of anyone more deserving of our attention.
Image from: http://www.thesnipenews.com/wp-content/gallery/rodriguez-at-venue-vancouver-oct-11-2012-christine-redmond-photos/erodriguez.jpg
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