Rodriguez, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH – 11/3
A frail Rodriguez is assisted to center stage. But, after strapping on his acoustic guitar he becomes a revitalized figure, and over the next 75 minutes this transformation allowed him to play originals and covers, and offer jokes and well-worn wisdom on life, love and politics to a sold out Beachland Ballroom crowd.
His brief career and cult status brought out older fans and the newly-devoted. Some witnessed him perform 40 years ago. Others traveled up to six hours for this final U.S. date on his current tour. And a select few shelled out for tickets that sold for $200 at online secondary markets.
Seeing Rodriguez onstage is like the resurrection of a dim star into a bright glowing sun. As chronicled by the acclaimed 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the Detroit native released two albums – “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming to Reality” in 1971. His music displayed an urban sensibility matched to the poetic wordplay of Bob Dylan. After the passing of years his recordings also displayed a common spirit with the psychedelic pop of Love and aching beauty of Nick Drake. Despite the songs making an immediate and lasting impression on anyone who heard them, his albums sold poorly.
Turning his back on the music business, Rodriguez attended college and worked a construction job to support his family. His songs became particularly meaningful to South Africans in the battle against apartheid. Fans tracked him down and brought him over for an arena tour in 1998. His U.S. homeland finally came around after “Sugar Man” exposed Rodriguez’s timeless material to a wide audience.
It was a testament to his songwriting and playing skills that the strings and colorful arrangements heard on his albums were not missed during a 16-song solo performance with only an acoustic guitarist added on a few selections. The purity of the numbers, vividness of the words and the intimacy of the room was all that was needed.
“I Think of You” shares the pain of a love lost, while the pop hooks of “I Wonder” cover its fractured relationship and “Like Janis” doesn’t even get farther than a putdown.
His between song banter even sounded like unused lyrics. “Love. Don’t be a silent partner.” Then, there was this advice. “You wanna know the secret of life? Breathe in, breathe out.”
“Rich Folks Hoax” and “Sugar Man” seemed as relevant today as when they were written. The latter with references to cocaine and marijuana he noted was a “a descriptive song not prescriptive.”
“Forget It,” the b-side “You’d Like to Admit” and “Crucify Your Mind also made the setlist.
Taking a break from his imagery of inner city life, he covered classics from the Great American Songbook (“Fever” and “I Only Have Eyes for You”) and rock era (“Blue Suede Shoes”). Initially, they sounded out of place, only because they were much simpler melodies than his originals. The connection that Rodriguez felt to those numbers along with his own songs became a shared joy for him and the audience who cradled every moment of the night in an attempt to make them last forever.