Written by James Killen
Oct 23, 2012 at 08:00 PM
ImageSeveral weeks ago I was watching Sixty Minutes after the ball game and saw a segment on “Rodriguez: The Rock Icon That Didn’t Know It” and one of the songs that was featured aroused an old scratchy vinyl memory. It came up from someplace between Dylan and Donovan, Phil Ochs and Gil Scott-Heron. I knew that I’d heard that guy before. I went on the internet and ordered the re-releases of his two original LP’s and got tickets to his upcoming gig at the House of Blues Peacock Room. Like so many other folks, I was seized by the story.

Sixto Rodriguez was the sixth child (hence the name Sixto) of Mexican immigrants living in the Detroit area. Sixto learned the guitar and vocal style that would influence his music from his father. He was writing songs and playing covers in Detroit dives and bars before he was eighteen.

A couple of the local musicians took note of his talents and steered him to some of the Mo-Town music and production folks that ended up signing him to a 3 LP contract. In 1969 they recorded “Cold Fact”, Rodriguez’s first LP. The lyrics were perceptive, cutting and unrepentive, but the production style was formulated to be marketed on AM radio. It was like wrapping a chain saw in pink ribbons. In the production company’s defense, FM was a fairly new medium and anyone that wanted to get serious airplay was aiming for the AM market.

The second LP, “Coming from Reality” was recorded in the UK and had a more FM marketable sound. Neither of the recordings reached what was hoped to be the full potential of the effort at the time. Maybe it was because the artist couldn’t be swayed to the industries expectations by the lure of the trappings and excesses of fame, or because the artist saw the music industry as knowing all of the numbers, but not knowing the score. In any case, neither party pursued the third LP. Rodriguez returned to Detroit to further his education, participate in local politics, work as a laborer and raise a family.

As it turned out, there was a market for chainsaws wrapped in pink ribbons. Rodriguez’s recordings started to make a mark in the British Commonwealth. Sales ticked up in Australia and New Zealand, warranting a concert tour and a live album in the late 1970’s. The really dedicated fan base emerged in South Africa. Apartheid’s suppression of people of black or colored (other than pure black or pure white heritage) was matched by a moral suppression of any behavior by young whites that did not fit within narrow religious guidelines.

Rodriguez’s music spoke to those young South African whites, exposing them to the world of peoples that lived in “less than optimal” economic situations and gave them an outlet for those natural feelings being suppressed by the “moral majority”. The breaking down of apartheid came from both the black/colored community and the youth of the white community in South Africa and, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music was an integral part of the soundtrack to the revolution.

As apartheid began to disintegrate, fans began to wonder what became of Rodriguez. Rumors started that he had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire on stage as a protest to the injustices of the world. In reality this was far from the truth, as it was discovered that Sixto had been living his life as a heavy laborer, doing demo and construction while he participated in local politics and spent time with his family. In the late 1990’s, he did a tour in South Africa and was surprised at the level of fan support there. He had prepared to do a series of small bar gigs and found himself performing for stadiums of 5,000 fans at a time.

Today, a documentary called “ Searching for Sugarman” is in line for consideration for the Sundance awards. The thing that really sticks out about Rodriguez’s music, is that the lyrics are well constructed, socially relevant, intermittently shocking and so real that everyone can relate. I had no idea what to expect upon attending the actual show.

The Bronze Peacock room on the third floor of the House of Blues complex is really set up to be a reception room, with a small bar in the back and a small stage in the front. The sound system consisted of a small practice amp run through the mixing board. I’m sure that it is sufficient for the background music of a reception or a small group of listeners that came prepared for a low key folk act. Unfortunately, the system was no match for a crowd of 400 or so, many of whom were better talkers than listeners.

ImageEven though Rodriguez was my main focus for the evening, I had been looking forward to seeing Jenny O, as well. I’d given a few of her YouTube recordings a listen and found her songs fresh, creative, ethereal, in some cases, and full of fun in others. She’s an accomplished guitarist and pianist with a sweet, high pitched voice. She is one of those nouveau hippies, meaning of the hippie persuasion, but firmly planted in the 21st century, as opposed to being an anachronism, with her songs touching the nature of today’s relationships and issues.

She started out her set with “Won’t Let You Leave”, followed by “Learned My Lessons”, but the performance began at a disadvantage against the noise of the chatty crowd with an inadequate sound system. It seemed the louder that Jenny played, the louder the crowd got. I was able to pick out “Neighbor” and “Well OK, Honey” from the eight song set, the last two of which (I couldn’t pick out their titles) Jenny really tried to push out there with aggressive finger-picking and strumming techniques backing up the straining vocals to overcome the din.

She left the stage after twenty-five minutes of frustration and some undeserved embarrassment. Jenny has a new disc coming out in February and I hope to see her promoting it in Houston at a more folk appropriate venue.

When the seventy year old Rodriguez approached the stage, it was obvious that his night vision was failing him. He was led up to the mike and oriented to where he could operate on his own. He was wearing a three piece tuxedo, a “trademark” floppy hat and sporting an older model blond hollow bodied guitar. The crowd whooped, shouting out requests like “I Wonder”, to which he replied, “I wonder, too, but I don’t really want to know.” I immediately picked him for a man used to performing in small bars and dives that reveled in the back and forth banter common in those venues.

After a bit of tuning, he kicked off the evening with “Establishment Blues”. Rodriguez, deeper voice and more amplified guitar gave him a little more projection than the opening act, but he still had to stay right up on the mike to be heard and the Houston humidity sent him back to tuning between every song. In spite of the adverse environment, Rodriguez’ voice never wavered and he didn’t miss a note in his entire performance as he continued with “I Wonder”, a crowd favorite that had many singing along.

Even though Rodriguez had plenty of his own compositions to fill up the show, he sprinkled in a few covers, like the bluesy Peggy Lee hit, “You Give Me Fever”. He followed that up with the heartfelt lyrics of “Crucify Your Mind” and Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” featuring some jazzy guitar licks.

ImageAbout this time, the Houston humidity got to Sixto, himself, luring him to shed his tuxedo coat and vest down to the sleeveless black shirt, revealing arms that, even at seventy, one could tell had been used to a life of heavy lifting. The show continued with his biggest hit “Sugarman” and the poignant “Inner City Blues”. Not to ignore Elvis (or maybe Carl Perkins) Rodriguez belted out a rocking and rolling, “Blue Suede Shoes” and then moved on to “Like Janis”, about dressing down that snooty girl who suddenly wanted to come back around when there was some success in his career.

Rodriguez was even willing to share his wisdom with those worshipping fans when he stated “The secret to life is to keep breathing in and out”. Rodriguez was genuinely thrilled by the enthusiastic reception that he got and a big smile was on his face as he thanked the crowd for the applause between every song. He wound up his set with the socially pointed “Rich Folks Hoax”, “You’d Like to Admit It” and finally the finishing ditty “Forget It”, before being led off stage.

There comes a time in the thread of life when a man looks at the spool and sees that there has been more rolled off of it than is left on. That’s when he starts to look back to see what he has accomplished. Sixto Rodriguez was blessed to have found out later in his life that people had been listening to what he had to say and that his music had made a difference in so many people’s lives, above and beyond that of his family and friends. Many people came to Tuesday night’s show expecting to see someone bigger than life. Sixto Rodriguez is not bigger than life, but he is a man that lived a life that is just about as big as life gets.