Article Credit: Mariko Margetson
I wasn’t expecting a concert with legendary Sixto Rodriguez to end in a quiet riot of loving disobedience, but that’s what happened during his encore performance at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on August 5th. For most North American’s, Rodriguez is best known for being the artist whose story was documented in the Academy Award winning film “Searching for Sugarman”. The man who went virtually unnoticed in his own country while unknowingly becoming one of the most influential artists in South Africa.
I can’t comment about why he wasn’t more popular in North America without delving into a discussion about the hypocrisy of mainstream media, but I will say that it’s not difficult to understand how the music of Sixto Rodriguez resonated with people in the midst of a crumbling, oppressive regime or why it still resonates with people today. There is timelessness to his music and gentleness to his voice, which at the same time is infused with an urgency that speaks universally to the human condition to listen, to understand, to change, and to forgive.
That’s what had the historic 2,780 seat venue nearly packed on a hot, sticky and smoky summer’s evening. The crowd was first treated to a sampling of songs from up and coming artist Lucette who charmed with her sweet, sleepy drawl and a catalog of murder ballads and personal musings. It’s also worth mentioning that after her set she chose to watch Rodriguez perform from a seat near the front as opposed to from the side of the stage or even backstage. Props to you miss.
Even though I knew that Sixto Rodriguez was nearly blind from glaucoma, the sight of him being led across the stage by his daughters broke my heart just a little bit. But only for a minute, because once the soft spoken, guitar wielding man in black began to sing the opening lines from “Climb Up On My Music, the evening became an affectionate exchange between the legendary artist and all those who chose to be there that night.
Three musicians joined him on stage to provide accompaniment; guitar, bass and drums while Rodriguez perched on a chair in their midst with his musical battle-axe and a small assortment of hats. Though the folk legend may be soft and gentle, save for a few verses here and there Sixto Rodriguez’ voice carried just as well as it did on his now infamous records some forty-five years ago.
That night he was sweetly sassy with the boisterous crowd as they cheered him through a set laden with his own classics as well as a few from other musical legends. The last verse of the Elton John hit ‘Your Song’ became a sing-a-long and the modest musician had to quiet down several fans determined to hear him play his own swaying hit ‘I Wonder’ more than once. He managed a quiet command of the stage while at times losing himself in the music and raising his guitar to strum madly and reveal a surprising intensity from a soft spoken gentleman who urged the crowd to ‘be gentle with your anger’.
By all accounts, Sixto Rodriguez remains fundamentally unchanged by the twists and turns his life has taken in the last 45 years. There is something positively transcendental about that, about him and what it’s like to watch him live. There is nothing in what he does now that would suggest it’s for any reason other than Sixto Rodriguez is simply being who Sixto Rodriguez is, has been and always will be.
I want everybody here tonight to know that I want to be treated like an ordinary legend, he says laughing quietly, wryly.
So it really wasn’t a surprise when a pair of enthusiastic fans successfully helped him raise the roof at a venue where rushing the stage will get you escorted out. It was during the encore when the first fan rebelled, dancing her way to the front of the stage. When security caught up to her, another man took up the torch and for a few moments, they had security dashing back and forth before their combined enthusiasm won out and they were joined by a wave of other Rodriguez die hards, myself included. Luckily, security let it ride and we all clapped and cheered along as the man of the hour finished the show with a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s Live Until I Die before walking off the stage with his fist in the air and declaring “power to the people!”.
It was perfect.