When people gather and talk about the singer-songwriters they admire, the same familiar names usually recur: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell: all legends whose music has lasted through the decades, from the 1960s to the present day. Very few would mention Jesus ‘Sixto’ Rodriguez – unless they were South African.
For those who haven’t seen 2012’s most successful documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, let me explain. Rodriguez, a young singer-songwriter from Detroit – whose music could best be described as ‘Donovan-esque’ – released two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971).
Though a hit with some critics, the albums sold poorly in America and elsewhere despite containing songs showing a rare melodic talent and lyrics that chimed with the anti-establishment times. Rodriguez, disheartened, became a builder and labourer and got on with his life: just another artist who tried – and failed – to make it in the music business.
Unbeknownst to him, however, his records had made their way into South Africa and become beloved by white Afrikaans who despised the apartheid regime. To them, Rodriguez was the man. And dead. In lieu of facts, bizarre rumours had spread that Rodriguez had killed himself onstage during a performance, either by setting himself on fire or by shooting himself in the head.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of how two South African fans found out that Rodriguez was still alive, tracked him down to his one room apartment in Detroit, and brought him to South Africa for a series of sold-out shows around the country in 1998.
It is a heartwarming story of a rare second-act in popular music, and Rodriguez comes across in the film as a humble man, pleased to be given that second chance rather than bitter about how he has been treated by the industry.
Touring the UK to promote the upcoming DVD release of the film, Rodriguez arrives in Belfast on the back of English shows, which were given mixed reviews by critics.
Following a mood-setting hour of cult 1960s and 70s tunes played by DJ David Holmes (who featured ‘Sugar Man’ on his 2002 album Come Get It I Got It) Sixto, as Rodriguez is otherwise affectionately known, is helped onto the Empire stage: not because he’s frail but because, it seems, he is almost blind these days.
Dressed in black, with leather trousers and a brimmed hat, he feels for the microphone inches from his face with a sweep of his hand. As the sold-out crowd cheer, his fingers pluck some random notes from his guitar and then the backing band (Phantom Limb, from Bristol) kick into ‘Climb Up On My Music,’ the opening track from his second album.
Remarkably, considering his age, Rodriguez’ voice sounds as it does on the albums recorded more than 40 years ago: strong and soulful, with an endearing frailty of tone.
Cheers of recognition greet each song. Unknown to many mere months ago, the Belfast crowd lustily sIng along to the songs like old favourites. There are, of course, some South Africans in the audience who were weaned on these tunes, and they crowd in front of the stage repeatedly tell their hero how much they love him.
The man and the band keep it tight for the first half dozen numbers, concentrating on the music. The songs are tight, soulful and Rodriguez himself plays some mean rhythm guitar licks. Relaxing a little, he welcomes the crowd before performing a wonderful, understated take on Cole Porter’s ‘Just One Of Those Things.’
He follows this with a joke about Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the punchine of which (featuring Goofy) is best left to the imagination, before breezing into ‘I Wonder', his poppiest song and a should’ve-beena-hit way back when.
Most of the crowd are in thrall to the performance. For some though, it seems to be enough to be here, to say they saw Rodriguez play: they don’t need to listen to him. They’re content to chatter throughout the set. The sound of shushing can be heard in between songs.
Rodriguez, undeterred (and hopefully ignorant of the ignorant) breaks into his signature number ‘Sugar Man’ ('a descriptive song, not a prescriptive one' he quips), ending with a freak out coda. His coat removed to show off impressive biceps (all those fridges carried on his back for decades), he tells the crowd he’s 70. 'Are you on the DLA?' a local wag shouts.
The night finishes with encore performances of Carl Perkins ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (which highlights the musicianship of the band) before Rodriguez leads the crowd in a mass sing-along of Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to send everyone home happy.
'Belfast, it’s been an honour, a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you,' he tells us modestly before he is led from the stage and off into a future much brighter than it used to be. Right back at you, Mr Rodriguez. And thank you.