Undoubtedly, one of greatest and most jaw-dropping real life rock 'n roll stories to emerge in recent years is that of Sixto Rodriguez. The Detroit born and bred folk rocker released two outstanding but widely ignored albums in the early 1970s that, in a perfect world, should have been cornerstones of finely-crafted protest music. The son of poverty-stricken, hardworking immigrant parents, Sixto (translated as "sixth") was named so for his place in his family's brood of children. Referred to simply by his surname, Rodriguez looked poised to make some serious waves with his stupendous debut album, 1970's Cold Fact and its equally impressive follow up, 1971's Coming From Reality.
And, as quickly as strong reviews and momentum seemed to propel him, the bottom fell out of the Rodriguez machine. An unjust and inexplicable lack of promotion from a record label that would soon fold led to the total disappearance of the Mexican descendant and his unique brand of street poetry. His death had been rumored for decades with stories as elaborate as an onstage self-inflicted suicidal gunshot at the forefront of the myths. However, a group of followers from South Africa — where Rodriguez had garnered superstar status with his albums selling in astronomical numbers and his music never leaving heavy rotation on radio airwaves — took it upon themselves to dig deeper and track the elusive folk legend down.
And, lo and behold, several years and an Academy-award winning documentary later, Rodriguez has re-emerged and decided to embark on a world tour to bring his still-relevant messages to the masses, many of whom were wowed by his unbelievable story after watching the fantastic aforementioned film all about his journey, Searching for Sugar Man.
Imagine the delight of Bay area residents when it was announced that a performance at the cozy Ferguson Hall inside downtown Tampa's ornate Straz Center was scheduled as part of Rodriguez's U.S. tour. A sell-out crowd was treated to a delightful show last Thursday night as Rodriguez brought his wit and positive aura to our backyard in a performance that won't soon be forgotten.
Slowly emerging not long after 9 p.m. and escorted by two of his adult daughters, the 70-year-old (who is suffering from failing eyesight) was brought to his place at the center of a sparse stage and wasted no time launching into his fine collection of topical and personal compositions. Dressed from head to toe in all black (floppy hat, shades, jacket and leather pants), Sixto immediately began his set with the apt opener, "Climb Up On My Music," a musical open invitation for listeners to come along for the ride through the Rodriguez experience.
While vocally he seemed to whimper a bit and didn't seem to project very well, it wouldn't be too long before Rodriguez warmed up and took more control of his Donovan-meets-Nick Drake croon. About five songs into his 100-minute set, Rodriguez hit his stride as he launched into "Cold Fact," the infectious title track from his debut album.
A welcomed surprise came in Sixto's sense of humor and between-song banter. Whether he was telling R-rated jokes or delivering messages of positivity and self-reliance, Rodriguez seemed to be relishing in his much-deserved and long overdue moment in the spotlight.
Sadly, the three-piece backing band that accompanied him seemed a little lackluster and paled in comparison to the charisma Rodriguez brandished all night. Constantly referring to himself as a "solid 70" in regards to his age, Rodriguez, who alone is probably equal in years to the combined ages of the guitarist, bassist and drummer backing him, could stand to give a lesson or two in stage presence to his backing musicians.
Regardless, the constantly screaming crowd came for one reason: to hear and experience the magic of Rodriguez and to hear his music and messages in person for no doubt the very first time ever.
Between-song crowd roars of "we love you!" or "thank you!" were instantly met with heartfelt and humble retorts from the stage: "I love you more!" Sixto often replied without a hint of arrogance or insincerity. He seemed downright humbled as he talked about and proudly displayed an honorary doctorate (a Doctor of Humane Letters degree) he was awarded earlier in the day from his alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit.
Rodriguez touched on all his signature songs, more than amply demonstrating his gift of poetry and his honorable plight for equal rights and an end to poverty, subject matter that is still wildly relevant today. Several covers of more well-known songs were thrown in for good measure, too. Some worked really well (the 1930's Cole Porter standard "Just One of Those Things" showcased Rodriguez's warm vocals), some seemed ill-suited for his delivery (like Carl Perkins's rockabilly romp, "Blue Suede Shoes") and the closer, a spirited rendition of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," became an audience-wide sing along and served as one of the evening's many memorable moments.
The widely varied audience seemed elated with the show and the truly once-in-a-lifetime vibe that seem to carry through the entirety of the evening. With any luck, word of this unique artist and his almost unbelievable life story will continue spreading and his fanbase will likewise grow. And, as is evident with his still fresh-sounding, decades-old albums and his fine performance last Thursday night, the messages in his music will never die and will still remain relevant for many more decades to come.
Climb Up on My Music
Only Good For Conversation
Crucify Your Mind
Just One of Those Things (Cole Porter cover)
Inner City Blues
Lucille (Little Richard cover)
I Think of You
Can’t Get Away
Rich Folks Hoax
To Whom it May Concern
This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
Sea of Heartbreak (Don Gibson cover)
Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins cover)
I Only Have Eyes For You (Flamingos cover)
Fever (Little Willie John cover)
I’m Gonna Live Till I Die
Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan cover)