Review: Rodriguez at LJF 2012

Sally Evans-Darby discovers an artist who has been in and out of obscurity since the 1960s but is now firmly in the limelight

I first heard about the singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez when a film charting his life, Searching For Sugar Man, was in the news earlier this year. The BBC called him "the musician who never knew he was famous," and I was fascinated by his story. Rodriguez released a couple of albums in the States in the late 60s, but for one reason or another they didn't take off – despite his sound being at first hearing very much a cross between Bob Dylan and Donovan.

He disappeared into obscurity, working in demolition and gaining a degree in philosophy in his hometown of Detroit. Meanwhile, unknown to him, his albums were gaining in popularity in South Africa, where they took on something of a cult status. Rodriguez was oblivious to his overseas fame.

Rodriguez Sugar manThe rumours in South Africa were that Rodriguez had died many years ago, but two devoted fans were determined to find out if there was any truth to the rumours – and finally managed to track him down in the 90s, which is the subject of Searching For Sugar Man. With the release of the film this year, Rodriguez has been touring worldwide and I was lucky enough to catch him at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

Now 70 years old, Rodriguez was helped onto the stage gingerly while his supporting band took up their places. A frail-looking man, face covered by black hat and dark glasses, he carefully picked up his guitar and faced the audience. But if anyone had been worried that such apparent frailty might mean a below-par performance, those worries were extinguished as soon as he began to strum his guitar and sing, his voice issuing out with a clarity and precision that was something of a surprise.

It seemed much of his fan-base had turned out to London to see Rodriguez: from the moment he stepped onto the stage the crowd were restless with applause and shouts of encouragement. "I love you, Rodriguez!" someone shouted from the back of the auditorium, to which he shyly replied "I know it's just the drinks talking, but I love you too."

Rodriguez was a quick and humorous performer, responding to one distant heckle from the corner of the room by sidling up to the mic and saying softly: "Drive safely." His songs were interspersed with jokes and warm thanks to the audience for their clear adoration of his music.

The music was uplifting, and the crowd knew every song. The songs that have become his signature tunes now – Sugar Man, I Wonder, Establishment Blues – were met with rapturous appreciation. There were also a few jazz standards in the mix: Fever done slow and smoochy with a searing electric guitar solo from the band's lead guitarist, prompting many wolf-whistles from the audience. Just One Of Those Things was a mellow, almost dark interpretation of the Porter classic, and the song to close the show was Learnin' The Blues – a quiet, softly sung coda to the evening.

When the band left the stage at the end of the set, the crowd were so thunderous in their demands for an encore that Rodriguez returned a few moments later and performed Like A Rolling Stone, to the delight of everyone present. Everybody was on their feet for this song, dancing and clapping. It was an evening of great music, warm rapport, and an inspiring story of revival for a musician who is now very much centre-stage.

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