Review: Rodriguez at Thebarton Theatre

Rodriguez is a performer whose story almost eclipses his music. And fair enough too, it’s a pretty good one.

Cutting two commercially unsuccessful albums at the dawn of the 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez returned to his working class life in Detroit while his music found legs of its own, attracting devoted fanbases in farflung spots like Australia and apartheid-era South Africa. Rediscovered in the ’90s, he’s since attracted renewed interest following 2012’s Oscar-winning doco Searching For Sugarman.

But unlike South African fans who wore down their copies of Cold Fact under the mistaken impression the singer had long since died, Australia has enjoyed fairly regular Rodriguez tours over the decades, building a reciprocated affection evident in the huge Australian tour he’s currently on – this well-attended Adelaide show is the first of two.

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After a stirring and witty welcome to country by Kaurna elder Stephen Gadlabarti Goldsmith, Rodriguez is led on to the stage by two family members, who gently place him and his guitar on a stool by a microphone. Dressed in black top hat and jacket, red silk shirt and with two skinned possums draped over his shoulders, the eternally sunglassed Rodriguez cuts a figure akin to a nocturnal Willy Wonka. But while Gene Wilder’s Wonka threw the cane aside and did a cartwheel for his admirers, the 74-year-old singer is understandably more restrained throughout the night.

This was most evident in the mix, which compared to most Thebarton Theatre shows is surprisingly quiet, Rodriguez’s vocals sitting particularly low. Whether it’s due in part to his age or just a matter of taste, it invites some overly tentative performances from his backing band, and would presumably make it difficult for the minority of audience members not already fluent with every note of his repertoire to fully connect with the performance.

Luckily most in the crowd were born-again Rodriguez fans, and reverently soaked up time-honoured favourites like Crucify Your Mind, Only Good For Conversation, I Wonder and his signature tune Sugar Man. Covers of tunes by The Doors and the Rolling Stones add a playful counterpoint to his more world-weary, self-penned material.

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The result is more akin to listening to a beloved if slightly crackly record at a reasonable volume on a Sunday morning than a smoky ’70s nightclub in downtown Detroit. At any rate, one piece of unsolicited audience advice for the sound guy to not “be a pussy” certainly punctures any illusion that we were anywhere but an Australian theatre, full of punters whose expectations of a modern concert are of varying flexibility to say the least. But would a full-on, tinnitus inducing rock show really be a preferable way to experience this man and his music? It’s hard to imagine that being the case.

But, for someone whose worldwide success owes more to his elusive, mythic character and the long shadow cast by his succinct discography than a reputation for barnstorming live shows, the mere act of seeing him onstage and hearing that reedy, worldly voice simmer up through the clatter of his finger-strummed guitar was powerful enough.

Rodriguez performed at Thebarton Theatre on Tuesday, November 29

Photos: Andreas Heuer – AKPhotography 

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