Vancouver is sweet on Sugarman

Rodriguez @ the Orpheum Theatre 5/8/17

Photo by Sharon Steele
Photo by Sharon Steele

Vancouver loves Sixto Rodriguez. The Detroit born Mexican American returned to the city’s Orpheum Theatre last week (Aug 5) following last year’s sell out. When the mysterious songwriter poet restarted his touring in 2010, Rodriguez even graced such Vancouver musical landmarks as the Commodore Ballroom and Zulu Records.

On this occasion, Sixto Rodriguez played with the backing of a tight and professional supporting group that captured the spirit of his original recordings. Any fan of Cold Fact or Coming From Reality recognizes the importance of the the Motown-inspired musical arrangements. The audience, a vast spectrum of ages and backgrounds, buzzed with excitement. Rodriguez’s age does limit his performance abilities. Hobbling onstage with the help of his daughters, Sixto appeared physically frail but his presence hinted at an energetic spirit that would gradually emerge throughout the night’s performance. Rodriguez needed a few songs to get warmed up; at the beginning, the singer switched his hat each song as a gimmick for the audience.

With a full band, Rodriguez blooms brightest with his own material. His supporting band performed with expert resolve and respect towards his material, with the small exception of the lead guitar being slightly quiet; ability aside, a lead guitar should never drown out the star of the show.

“I’m aged 75 now, a solid 75, make the distinction”, Rodriguez joked midway through the performance. The songwriter’s career history, documented in the excellent film Searching for Sugarman, included many years working construction. Rodriguez’s personal experiences in the hard, working world add a sort of sincerity to his songwriting; imagine if Bob Dylan worked three decades doing heavy labour. The Detroit artist did not show any signs of bitterness, instead encouraging the crowd to “be gentle with your anger, be gentle with your emotions.” Rodriguez definitely enjoys being the centre of attention: “I want everyone here tonight to know that I want to be treated like a northern legend.”

Although the artist spoke negatively about capitalism and spoke considerably about oneness, tickets for the performance were hardly cheap. While it is admirable for the artist to generate some equity for his family after years of non-recognition, Rodriguez has performed a highly recognizable set in the city at least four times that relies heavily on covers yet avoids some of this most endearing compositions. While Rodriguez’s covers are far from bad, a few like Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” were more convincing when performed solo acoustic. To the audience’s delight, Rodriguez introduced his most famous song with an amusing antidote: “Sugarman is a descriptive song not a prescriptive song. Get your hugs, don’t use drugs.” The musical arrangements were keen and respectful of the original studio arrangements. Many of Rodriguez’s original compositions such as “Only Good For Conversation” require a backing band, which sounded completely on point and was another highlight of the evening.  

Rodriguez brims with optimism but is equally keen on approaching the theme of death. The aging poet’s take on Frank Sinatra’s “I’m Going to Live Until I Die” carried a peculiar resonance. This time around, Rodriguez was particularly talkative: “many of us enter the world with a clenched fist but we all leave with open hands.” Rodriguez still focuses on the bright side of things.