Published Nov 11, 2015It would be difficult for any music fan to not be aware of the Sixto Rodriguez story at this point. While Rodriguez always enjoyed a respectable if impressive following in Australia and South Africa, knowingly or not, the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man that told his tale finally delivered the erstwhile demolition worker the North American success that had eluded him for decades since he released the albums Cold Fact and Coming from Reality at the dawn of the '70s.
His is a real life Cinderella story, a legend to millions, the rumours of his death greatly exaggerated, who has gone from humble manual labour to playing the 600-capacity Venue in Vancouver in 2012 to selling out back-to-back nights at the twice-as-big Vogue Theatre in the middle of the week. The glass slipper fits, even if he's reluctant to wear it.
Local troubadour Ben Rogers opened with a brief solo acoustic set, climaxing with the long-form "Cowboys and Indians" saga, which he delivered with gusto via his suitably gruff voice. He received a fair amount of respect from the equal parts excited and intoxicated crowd steadily streaming into the space as the line-up of fans trailed out the door and around the block.
Anticipation hung heavy in the air as Rodriguez was gingerly led to centre stage by a couple of family members, who handed him the hat and sunglasses necessary to complete his image. A smooth performance wasn't in the cards, as he then spent a minute or two fussing with a guitar strap, which gave the crowd plenty of opportunity to shout adoration before he finally squared up to the mic, expressed a humble "Merci beaucoup," and started into "Inner City Blues." This set the tone for the show.
Between every song, Rodriguez would shakily find a sip of a warm beverage on the small table next to him, then turn his back to the crowd so he could work out the impending song's progression, which allowed time for drunks to profess their love and express favourable comparisons to Bob Dylan and, confusingly, Neil Diamond. Rodriguez would respond with another "Merci beaucoup" or a humorous sentiment like "I know it's the drinks, but I love you back," then get back to work.
For how delicate he appeared in his entrance and how unsteady his hand was grabbing his beverages between songs, his solo guitar strumming hit the right notes and his voice still had the twinkle of impertinence that remains all over his decades-old records. Seeing Dylan live post-2010 is to see a haunting husk of a former great, but Rodriguez somehow managed to maintain a sense of youthful vigour despite the advancing years of his hard-lived existence, performing songs that still need to be sung.
Understandably, given the small size of his stunted catalogue, there were a handful of covers that fleshed out this set, including "Lucille" by Little Richard, "Something's Got A Hold On Me" by Etta James, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die" by Frank Sinatra, "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins and "Your Song" by Elton John. It was rather fitting that he had to take his jacket off before his take on the old standard "Fever," which arguably received the most spirited response, but few of the covers were particularly essential. People were clearly there to hear Rodriguez sing his songs.
He thanked the crowd for helping him to sing the entirety of "Sugar Man" and supporting the hook to "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" when his voice momentarily failed him. They stomped and clapped as they sang "I Wonder," after which Rodriguez said they had rocked him, and he noted his appreciation for their percussion on the otherwise underpowered "Blue Suede Shoes."
The last song of his main set was "Forget It," a perfect song for that moment, as it features the refrain, "But thanks for your time / Then you can thank me for mine / And after that's said, forget it."
Following a boisterous round of stomping and whooping, his family led the man back out for his cover of "Lucille," which saw him getting almost as rowdy as the crowd, joining in as he let loose a howl.
"I'm Gonna Live Till I Die" seemed like a bit of a downer note on which to close, but he followed it up by saying, "Power to the people!" He threw a celebratory fist bump toward the crowd, as if to give the whole venue props, and they all would have given it back if they could.