MANHATTAN, NY—After 40 years of obscurity, 70-year old Searching For SugarMan star Sixto Rodriguez returned to play the songs he disappeared with during a sold-out Beacon Theatre show.
The Detroit-born singer-songwriter, likened to Bob Dylan, released two records in the early ‘70s: Coming From Reality and Cold Fact. Both sold poorly in the U.S., leading him to leave the music scene for a life of day labor in Michigan. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, while he was raising his hammer on a construction site, he was becoming more popular than Elvis in South Africa, where anti-apartheid protestors found inspiration in bootleg copies of his albums. The 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching For SugarMan by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul follows Rodriguez’s fairytale from rumors that he was dead to the day he learns that he’s been a legend for decades.
The Mexican-American songwriter’s rags-to-riches story has given him new fame in U.S. cities, where he now performs to sold-out crowds. (He currently has shows scheduled for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Oct. 9 and Radio City Music Hall on Oct. 10). But Rodriguez’s tale is only powerful because his music really is memorable.
Rodriguez enraptured the Beacon Theatre audience with his haunting voice and poetic verses. He was joined on stage by Matthew Smith (guitar), Gregory Beyer (bass), David Shettler (drums/synth), Gabriel Birnbaum (saxophone), and Adam Dotson (trombone) for 21 songs including “I Wonder,” “Crucify Your Mind,” “Inner City Blues,” “I Think Of You,” “Just One Of Those Things,” and “Sugar Man,” in which he joked that it was “a descriptive song, not a prescriptive song.” He also included covers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Despite suffering from glaucoma and requiring an escort to the microphone, Rodriguez was a masterful showman, strumming his guitar eloquently behind his dark glasses. He laughed easily at the crowd’s whistles when he took off his jacket and offered unique Rodriguez-isms.
“I’m 70 so I have to use my senior advantage,” said Rodriguez. “Men must halt. Men must stop. Men must end violence against women. Be gentle with your anger. He conquers who conquers himself.” The endearing song man also told jokes. “So let me tell you a stupid Mickey Mouse joke,” he said. “So Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are at the marriage counselor’s office. And the marriage counselor turns to Mickey and says, ‘But Mickey, being stupid isn’t grounds for divorce.’ Mickey says, ‘I didn’t say she was being stupid. I said she’s fucking Goofy.’”
Rodriguez’s aura, humility and wit offer a glimpse of the superstar he could have become. He may choose to remain in the modest Detroit house he’s occupied for the last 40 years, but when he hits the stage, the crowd can’t wait to remind him that he’s a rock star.