Rodriguez House of Blues (Bronze Peacock Room) October 23, 2012
You have to wonder how Houston has managed to produce and nurture as many great songwriters as it has over the years, because it's amazing any of them could ever keep their guitars in tune. Tuesday night our city's pernicious humidity sure struck down Rodriguez, the obscure Detroit singer-songwriter suddenly confronted with overnight fame.
His story, as told in the new documentary Searching for Sugar Man and a 60 Minutes profile that aired earlier this month, is pretty amazing. In a nutshell -- I haven't seen the movie, which I hope to remedy soon -- Sixto Rodriguez made two albums of gentle yet street-smart folk-rock in the late '60s and early '70s. That was about it stateside, but those records made their way over to South Africa, where Rodriguez became hailed as a Dylanesque voice of a generation (but didn't know it).
Complicating things further, at some point a rumor that Rodriguez had killed himself spread through the South African media. So a few years ago, a couple of his fans went searching for Sugar Man and found him alive and well and working construction back in Detroit. At House of Blues, all of that buys you about five minutes.
That's about as long as it took for the frost to creep onto the pumpkin Tuesday night. Rodriguez opened with "The Establishment Blues," but the vocal mike was bad, and the crowd let the sound guy know about that right away.
That got fixed soon enough, but more problematic was Rodriguez's poor guitar. It would not stay in tune, and he would not play it out of tune, leading to an impasse that sucked any momentum out of the evening. The ambient crowd chatter that often falls upon House of Blues like a curse followed not long after.
He managed to recover somewhat for "I Wonder," one of the songs the crowd had already been yelling for. Clouded with idealism and worry, it's a little like Donovan but with suspicion in place of flower power. He wonders "how many times you had sex," about the soldiers in the war, and many other things. To quote "Crucify Your Mind," his words give "substance to shadows."
The South Africans might have been on to something, and from what he had to work with, Rodriguez gave it everything he had Tuesday but the tuning problems would not let up. At the 35-minute mark, he had only played five songs, none of which was seven minutes long. Not good. It would have been much better to stick him somewhere between the Bieber wannabes and overnight YouTube sensations at 95.7's "Boo Ball" next door. That would have been something for those kids to ask their parents about.
Smiling and sheepish all evening, Rodriguez seemed to take it in stride. About the time people started walking out -- they missed a great version of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" too -- he played a passive-aggressive version of Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," putting a little extra oomph in his attack on the strings. Are pop standards easier to play in tune?
We may never know, but Rodriguez also announced that about an hour before going onstage, he had talked to MOJO magazine. Apparently MOJO has just named Searching for Sugar Man its best rock movie of 2012, so at least something good happened to Rodriguez in Houston.
More than anything else, Tuesday will probably go down as a huge missed opportunity for Anderson Fair or the Mucky Duck. If only life were like in the movies.
Personal Bias: Hoping to see Searching for Sugar Man soon. Rooting for Rodriguez more than ever after this.
The Crowd: You could say that this was one of those typical Houston crowds that does not quite understand the nuance and craft it takes to put on a live musical performance, and you might not be wrong. But it was especially sad to see locals like Umbrella Man's Nick Gaitan, Wild Moccasins drummer John Baldwin, and the Cactus Music crew, who had been waiting for a chance to see Rodriguez in person for years.
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Overheard In the Crowd: "How about those Tigers?!" To which Rodriguez responded, "I'm not really into sports."
Random Notebook Dump: Searching for Sugar Man is now playing at the Sundance Cinemas downtown.