Rodriguez in concert is unlike anyone else

Rodriguez in concert is like nothing else you’re likely to see on the big stage.

That things were going to be different was clear as soon as the Vancouver audience settled into the ornate Orpheum Theatre to view the nearly empty concert stage, set up with a stool, a microphone stand, and a giant guitar amp and vocal amp flagging them on each side. Though Rodriguez is not an acoustic artist- his two studio albums were mostly electric and made excellent use of a backing band and early 70s atmospherics- the 74-year-old Rodriguez clearly intended to bear the weight of the evening alone with nothing more than a hollow bodied electric, his signature thin, wood finish Yamaha AEX.

The next surprise for me, who hadn’t read any recent press about Rodriguez, was his difficulty getting on stage. Rodriguez took the stage with a woman on each arm due to his glaucoma, which has rendered him nearly blind. The folk rock icon who began playing in bars in Detroit where he would face away from the stage out of shyness would now face the audience without being able to see them.

Many people in the audience were clearly there because of the now famous documentary Searching for Sugerman, which tells the amazing story of Rodriguez’ failure to launch a musical career with his two first albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality and his subsequent decades of gruelling menial labour in house deconstruction in a poor neighbourhood of Detroit while unbeknownst to him he became an underground hero in South Africa and to a lesser extent Australia on the strength of those two albums. The documentarians searched for and found Rodriguez, helping him to successfully relaunch his career and become an unlikely rock legend.

Rodriguez is an anti-celebrity. Throughout the concert, he ignored unspoken rock concert customs. He played two of his most well-known songs (Crucify Your Mind and Sugarman) within the first six songs of the evening, electing not to use them either as rousing openers or as anticipated closers. Other songs of his- Establishment Blues, Hate Street Dialogue, Inner City Blues, I Wonder (a crowd favourite), Like Janis, Can’t Get Away, Forget It, Rich Folks Hoax were randomly sprinkled through the set list with no attempt to play off audience expectations or manipulate crowd energy. The rest of it was made up of covers, probably 50% of what he played- Fever, Light My Fire, Chain Gang, Your Song, and others. Rodriguez has enough material on the two studio albums he released to fill a concert- alright, maybe with a cover or two-yet instead he chose to do what he wants, which is to play some of his favourite classic tunes. That’s all.

Also amusing were his guitar replacements- I can’t remember seeing an artist replace their out of tune guitar only for other identical models before. The extra guitars were obviously there only to avoid tuning- Rodriguez didn’t trot out different favoured toys or show off artsy variations. Just one identical Yamaha AEX after another.

Despite his complete lack of typical showmanship (not lack of artistry, his guitar playing was excellent and his voice in fine form) the audience sat in spellbound reverence. Some of this was no doubt because of the larger than life legend that now accompanies Rodriguez, and the rest of it was due to what I suspect was a high number of South Africans and Aussies in the audience. Throughout the night people yelled questions, comments, and affirmations at Rodriguez, who often chatted back amiably and matter of factly. “I love you back”, he said after some enthusiastic applause. After his second song, he changed his hat for no apparent reason, and the rapt crowd went wild. He sipped from a white cup throughout, prompting someone to yell “What’s in the cup?” At one point he took off his jacket and well, you can just imagine.

Rodriguez’ original songs came out excellently, sounding like the underground classics they are. They were acerbic, gritty, melodic and somehow a little other-worldly. The songs were thematically focused on inner-city lives, social hypocrisy, and politics; or else cynical takes on love and egotism. Rodriguez’ guitar playing was fluid and unique, sounding like a mixture of Dylanesque strumming, Latin textures, and the blues. His covers were sung passionately and artfully, and were far from mere regurgitations or fan recitals- they were remade in his image, sung simply and hauntingly or with a dose of fire and groove, and altered to fuse with his unique guitar style and pacing.

The most unorthodox aspect of the set list was the encore. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering if he would come back on stage after he was helped off by his assistants (one of whom may have been his daughter, who is said to accompany him). Yet come back he did, to launch into the unpredictable choice of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction of all things, I imagine just because he felt like it. It put me in mind of Thoreau’s comment at the beginning of a public speech he gave: “You’ve paid to see me, folks, and for better or worse that’s what you’re going to get.”

After singing the Stones cover, Rodriguez appeared to be pausing to think of what he wanted to do next. This prompted an audience member to say something which summed up the evening perfectly, “Do whatever you want. You can’t disappoint us!”

Rodriguez finished the night with Forget It, a decent song of his but not one of his finest. After pumping his fist and saying “Power To The People!” he waved affectionately and was gone.