Hamer Hall, Thursday 21 March 2013
Way back in the 1980s, I had a South African girlfriend who was a Rodriguez fan. I remember her playing Cold Fact over and over, insisting that this guy Rodriguez was some kind of genius, and certainly on par with my songwriting hero, Bob Dylan. I dismissed Rodriguez out of hand, describing him as a talentless pretender. It’s taken me a long time, but I’m a believer. While the man was nowhere near as obscure as the recent Oscar winning documentary would have you believe, his genius was criminally neglected in his own country (Rodriguez was always a fairy well known in Australia). It’s high time his music found a wide audience, and I’m happy to swallow my pride and admit that Sugarman is a rare talent, so apologies to my ex. You were right, and I was obviously too far up my own anal orifice to give Cold Fact a fair listen. Anyway, that was then, this is 2013, and the mysterious Rodriguez paid a visit to my neighborhood.
Rodriguez is a legend, but at 70 years of age his powers have significantly diminished. This doesn’t mean he can’t put on a good show. His tunes are strong, and his spirit unbowed. The frailty of his voice, and his unsteady rhythm guitar certainly didn’t prevent his legion of fans enthusiastically hooting and hollering throughout his short sharp set. No doubt, there was a lot of love in the room, despite the sugar-man’s delayed appearance (he took an inordinately long time to actually take the stage).
Admirably backed by local Australian band, The Break, whose members include Rob Hirst from Midnight Oil on drums and American ex-pat Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes on bass, Rodriguez played a crowd pleasing set comprising of his best known songs, and a few choice covers, including the Oils’ Redneck Wonderland, and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. Rodriguez may have fluffed a few lines of the Dylan classic, but at least his enunciation was clear, and his passion evident, which is more than you can say about the Dylan’s own concert versions of this iconic tune these days.
Don’t let the rock star leather pants fool you, Rodriguez has obviously been doing it tough for many years. He has the body and demeanor of a manual laborer, and looks like a bizarre cross between Michael Jackson and Slash. Yet, he comes across as a modest man, and his act is devoid of slick stage patter. In fact, the usual superstar trappings of rock and roll are almost totally absent. His failing eyesight adds to his physique and reinforces the impression that Rodriguez is a tad overwhelmed by his belated fame. Still, he game fully ploughs through his set, and while the music is far from polished, it has a lot of soul.
The band comprise of highly accomplished musicians. This is evident from their tight opening set of surf rock gems. These guys are legends in their own right, after all, yet they really had to be on their toes to keep proceedings on an even keel. Rob Hirst never took his eyes off the front man, desperately trying to keep up with his idiosyncratic tempos and tics. For all his talent, and songwriting chops, it’s obvious that Rodriguez struggles with the rudiments of guitar playing these days, and the band do a remarkable job of keeping things from descending into total chaos. However, when Rodriguez and the band are in synch the songs groove and growl. There are no flat spots in the set, and the audience is generous with their applause, and genuinely thrilled to be in the presence of such a battler. And those criminally neglected tunes (Establishment Blues, I Wonder, Sugarman, Inner City Blues) all get an airing. All things considered, Rodriguez