Wednesday, April 11, 2018
State Theatre, Portland, Maine
I saw Searching for Sugar Man in 2012. It’s the true story of SixtoRodriguez–a singer-songwriter from Detroit who made a couple of folk albums in the 1970s that didn’t reach much of an audience in the US. What he didn’t know, though, was that his album Cold Fact made it to Apartheid-era South Africa, where he outsold Elvis Presley. Rodriguez had droves of dedicated fans in South Africa, but he never knew that and his South African fans didn’t know how to find him or even if he was alive. For two solid decades, while Rodriguez worked in construction and political activism, he was famous in South Africa. His fans tracked him down in the 1990s and it revived Rodriguez’s music career. I missed him by an hour in 2012 at the Newport Folk Festival and this show was scheduled for nearly a year ago, but was postponed. Six years after learning about him, and with Sixto Rodriguez clocking in at 75 years old, I finally had this opportunity to see him in person. I think most of us in the room knew we were lucky to be there.
Sisters Lily & Madeleine Jurkiewicz from Indianapolis opened the show with sparse, pretty songs and perfect sibling harmony. They were grateful for a listening audience, and sang a handful songs for us before turning the stage over to Rodriguez. I imagine it would be extra nerve-wracking to open a show for a legend, but they seemed calm and collected. Lily & Madeleine played piano and guitar, and have been recording together since 2013. Check out their 2014 NPR Tiny Desk Concert (Bob notes that they’re one of the youngest groups ever to record a session) to see what they’re about.
I was so glad I splurged on a second row seat at State Theatre so I could be closer to Rodriguez on stage. The whole night felt like sitting in a relative’s kitchen over coffee–including rants about politics, jokes, and storytelling. Given how hard he’s worked his whole life, I should have expected that Rodriguez shows his age. A couple of people helped him get out on stage, got him comfortable on his stool, positioned the microphone near his mouth, and set his two cups of tea (with lids) down on the table immediately next to him. He wore sunglasses all night, and it was obvious from where I was sitting that his vision is severely compromised at best. He’d touch the microphone to feel how close it was to his mouth. I noticed he’d feel around the lid of his cups of tea to find the slot to drink from. I thought about how much easier his life might have been if he’d been discovered for his talent in the US in the 70s, too, but I don’t think Rodriguez is worried about that at all. He joked that he uses his “senior advantage.”
He described himself as a “musical politico,” and added, “so you know what’s coming. Mr President–you’re under arrest. I have five soldiers in my family. Mexican people serve. And it would be wrong of me to not acknowledge their service in light of a draft dodger. My mother and father were both Mexican. And I know the meaning of the word indigenous.” The crowd roared in support. Well, most of the crowd did. Some of the crowd didn’t like his comments at all, which makes me think they didn’t know what show they’d bought tickets for.
Rodriguez played his own songs–“Inner City Blues,”“Crucify Your Mind,”“I Wonder,” and “Sugar Man” come to mind–and plenty of covers. He played Elton John’s “Your Song” early in the night. The timing wasn’t perfect, and I think some of the lyrics were wrong, but there was something mesmerizing about watching Rodriguez on stage doing his folky thing. The thing I love about folk music is that it tells stories about the truth, and Rodriguez did plenty of that. Some people in the crowd from the other side of the aisle surely thought he talked about politics way too much. Rodriguez had a lot to say, including “I’ve run for state representative of Michigan, Detroit city council, and I’ve also run for my life.” He said, “We need more women to run for public offices because we can see quite clearly that men can do it.” Again, most of the crowd loved it. Some did not.
Rodriguez had a table literally full of different hats on a small table right next to him. He’d feel around the table for a new hat after some of his songs and changed hats a handful of times throughout the night. Maybe they each put him in a different mood for particular songs he played? I don’t know, but it was kind of his “thing” that night. He cracked jokes some, too, and told us that “the secret to life is just to keep breathing in and out.”
I need to mention that the guy sitting next to me, who’d driven six hours from New Brunswick, Canada, paid $75 for his second row seat, and was SUPER DRUNK during the show. It was obnoxious. He literally fell out of his seat from a seated position. He trying to engage with people sitting around him, including me, but he was shouting. I don’t understand why people make the effort to get to a show if they’re not going to remember it after the fact. For the most part, though, the audience was notably attentive and respectful. When the guy next to me shouted at me “WHY IS NO ONE UP AND DANCING?” I was able to whisper to him, “because this is a FOLK CONCERT.”
Rodriguez talked a lot–certainly as much as he played. He named some places in the world where the people united to fight back against oppressive rulers–including Mexico, France, and South Africa–and told us that “oppression results in revolution.” Someone in the crowd shouted back “NELSON MANDELA BOMBED CHILDREN.” There was a strange pause in the room where I think many of us just tried to figure out why someone who was anti-Mandela paid $75 for a ticket to see Rodriguez in person. His music is so obviously about taking on the establishment. Rodriguez replied, “know your enemy, man.” When he finished his song, he circled back to the moment and said, “whenever I speak to people, I appeal to their collective consciousness, because we know who kills children.” [Side note: Nelson Mandela is a hero of mine. He was elected president of South Africa on my 14th birthday. I studied abroad in Southern Africa because of him. My cat is named Nelson Mandela, too.]
Rodriguez’s show was as much a discourse about the state of the world and a meandering history lesson as a folk concert. I’m a social studies teacher, so I was down to learn from his experience, and I wish more of us were open to hearing the voices that have been silenced. He knew he talked a lot, of course, and told us “I shouldn’t talk so much. My father told me I have a big mouth.”
Rodriguez left us with this piece of advice–“Love is strong, so be gentle with your anger.” A couple of people arrived to help him find his way off stage. He (obviously) earned a standing ovation and was helped back to the stage to play a last song for us. He closed the night with a boldcover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” which felt like the right note to leave on. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever have the opportunity to see him in person again, and I am so glad I was there in the room for this.