FULL MOON RISING Rodriguez

At a rare live
performance, a musical prophet and his fans discover he truly is with honor.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

In a way, it was the culmination of an amazing year for
Rodriguez – a twinned triumph of deferred artistry and rooting for the underdog
that left both artist and fans in mild states of shock at how wonderfully
things turned out. These are my people,
you imagined the performer thinking, as he peered out through his shades at
audience packing Asheville,
NC, venue the Grey Eagle on
January 10. This is our music, we
collectively thought, sensing a connection to both the songs and the man who
wrote them, as we smiled right back at him and pumped our fists to express that
feeling of triumph.

 

The man born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez on July 10, 1942, in
Detroit has already experienced three career “revivals” of sorts, each
unanticipated, as his two lone studio albums (1970’s Cold Fact and 71 1971’s Coming
From Reality
), neither of which enjoyed even modest sales in their own
time, continue to be rediscovered by fans, journalists, DJs and crate-diggers
who whiff the unmistakable scent of songwriting genius alongside a timelessness
in the arrangements and production.

 

The first revival came during 1979-81 in Australia
where, after learning that his records had through various licensing deals and
outright bootlegging become hits down under, Rodriguez toured to adoring crowds
(including one memorable trek with Midnight Oil). Nearly two decades later, history
repeated itself when in 1998 Rodriguez toured South Africa’s arenas, as his
records had somehow achieved platinum status over the years in that country; the
tour additionally yielded a concert album, Live
Fact
. And even more recently, Rodriguez
found appreciative audiences in Europe; one influential DJ, Scotland’s
David Holmes, tapped Cold Fact tune
“Sugar Man” for his Come Get It I Got It mixtape and subsequently re-recorded the song featuring Rodriguez’s vocals and
an orchestra for 2003’s David Holmes
Presents the Free Association
. So he’s already tasted some long-overdue acclaim,
in some instances before thousands of fans who knew the lyrics to all his
songs.

 

Still, as a lot of American musicians will tell you, being
“big in Europe” (or wherever) is often just a
corollary to the maxim “a prophet is without honor in his own back yard,” so
overseas success can sometimes taste bittersweet. For all sorts of reasons the
Rodriguez story never happened Stateside, not the least of them being that both
Cold Fact and Coming From Reality have been out of print in America since
shortly after their initial release. That began to change this past August,
however, when Seattle’s Light In The Attic label
reintroduced Rodriguez to U.S.
audiences via a handsomely packaged reissue of Cold Fact. In the accompanying 32-page booklet, Rodriguez’s tale is
expertly recounted (hats off to liner notesmen Kevin “Sipreano” Howes and
Stephen “Sugar” Segerman), with those career arcs outlined above getting fleshed
out in extraordinary detail, making the CD a must-own as much for the
historical as the musical documentation it provides. Further information,
including music samples, can be found at the LITA website (www.lightintheattic.net) and the
official Rodriguez website (www.sugarman.org),
while an excellent recent Rodriguez article and interview can be viewed at Asheville’s Mountain Xpress alt-newsweekly (www.mountainx.com). 

 

That yet another chapter was opened in the Rodriguez story
via the LITA reissue wasn’t totally out of the blue. The man’s unlikely
trajectory from never-was-been to cult hero and platinum artist makes for an
irresistible journalistic retelling; no less a bastion of mainstream American
media than National Public Radio devoted nearly ten minutes of an “All Things
Considered” broadcast this fall to Rodriguez, while BLURT has also jumped on the
Rodriguez bandwagon, including a CD review of Cold Fact along with news items HERE, HERE and HERE. Scores of writers
and publications (including BLURT) also named Cold Fact to their year-end best-of lists for 2008, for as I remarked
recently to a friend, “Everybody loves a comeback, especially when it’s neither
calculated nor cynical.”

 

But the Rodriguez trajectory also seems to stand apart from other
artists who for whatever reasons also dropped off the radar only to be
rediscovered by a new generation. John Fahey, for example, had slipped into
obscurity when journalist Byron Coley tracked him down for a now-legendary Spin article in 1994, but unlike Rodriguez,
Fahey’s latterday career represented a genuine revival since he’d already
experienced a degree of acclaim and fame earlier in life. You might find a
partial analogue in the stories of some of those aging delta bluesmen who,
unearthed by writers and archivists, went on to enjoy new prominence and the
fruits of patronage, but you’d be hard pressed to find one who, like Rodriguez,
had essentially retired from the music business in order to raise a family and
pay the rent while, unbeknownst to him, his records were literally going
platinum in some far away foreign territory.

 

In the wake of the prominence and success of the Cold Fact reissue, Light In The Attic will
be reissuing Coming From Reality in
May. For his part, Rodriguez hasn’t been a passive recipient of the accolades;
he did his first American shows in nearly four decades last year, including
appearances in NYC, Detroit, L.A.
and San Francisco.
They all received generally good notices, although reviewers did note that in a
few instances there was a somewhat tentative nature to the performances, most
likely due to the fact that Rodriguez doesn’t have his own touring band but
instead relies on the concert promoters
to assemble backing musicians who can learn a setlist comprising the bulk of Cold Fact and a few tunes off Coming From Reality.

 

***

 

It was with all the foregoing in mind that I, and no doubt
numerous others who’ve also been tracking Rodriguez, went to the Grey Eagle Saturday
night. I’ve been attending gigs long enough (nearly 40 years) to know how a
disproportionate level of anticipation can undermine a concertgoing experience,
although I didn’t necessarily downgrade my expectations either, and I did allow
myself the usual luxury of pre-show ritual, i.e., playing Cold Fact a zillion times over the course of a couple of days
leading up to the show. But I also reminded myself that “performer” has not
been Rodriguez’s full-time occupation for some time, and that the whole
pickup-backing-band factor can be a substantial wild card.

 

On that latter count, as it turned out I needn’t have
worried. A couple of months ago when the show’s promoters,
Mark Capon and Matt Schnable (who also operate Asheville indie CD and vinyl
emporium, Harvest Records), booked
Rodriguez, they were surely mindful of that same wild card aspect and as a
result were determined to ensure that this rarer-than-rare concert – Rodriguez,
though open to bookings, doesn’t have a regular tour itinerary – didn’t turn
into some sort of embarrassing Chuck-Berry-flummoxes-local-pickup-band debacle.
Capon took it upon himself to assume bass chores; on drums was Drew Wallace
(ex-Guyana Punchline); on piano and keys, Kim Roney; and on guitar, Greg
Cartwright, of Reigning Sound/Oblivians fame. They also lined up a three-man
horn section: Derrick Johnson, Jacob Rodriguez and Ben Hovey, on trombone, sax
and trumpet. The ensemble duly bore down to learn the material – if you’ve
heard Cold Fact you know that while
some of the songs are straightforward, others have some tricky, complex
arrangements – and awaited Rodriguez’s arrival in Asheville.

 

Cartwright opened the show with a solo set culled mostly from
his Reigning Sound back catalog. One high
point was “Stop and Think It Over,” the
dreamy-yet-thumping song that Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles had a minor
AAA hit with last year. A funny moment came as he fielded a request for “Since
When” but then had to stop when he realized he’d forgotten the lyrics (“And
that’s my wife’s favorite one too,” he sheepishly admitted) and instead
launched into dark pop nugget “Bad Man.” Wielding Byrdsian jangle chords with
tenderness and agility, and spieling forth on the vicissitudes of love pursued
(yet more often than not lost), Cartwright lived up to his steadily rising reputation
as one of America’s finest songwriters. His lyrics are born of fond and/or
bittersweet memories that touch the teenager in all of us; his melodies are
descended from equally vivid memories of spinning vintage 45s late into the
night on an old drop-down stereo; yet both words and music seem utterly fresh,
imbued with a timelessness that has already made other artists take notice –
among them, Borges, the Ettes (who covered “We Repel Each Other”), and Mary
Weiss of the Shangri-Las, who tapped Cartwright for songwriting and production
chores on her Dangerous Game album.

 

Why isn’t this guy being courted by the Nashville song factories? His material is at
once narrative and universal, and above all, his characters are human and believable, precisely the type
of songs that so many of Music Row’s stars keep taking to the bank. With the
genres of “country” and “pop” essentially interchangeable nowadays (add a
fiddle and a pedal steel to a jangly powerpop tune and you’ve got a twangy
country tune), there’s no reason why Cartwright compositions shouldn’t be found
in the upper reaches of the Billboard charts.

 

***

 

During the break the PA blared a seamless mix of sixties
garage and pop, e.g., “I Want Candy,” “Wooly Bully,” etc., as concertgoers
streamed in. By 10:15 the place was impressively filled – the door person confirmed
later that they’d almost reached the 550 capacity – and although this was
certainly due in part to the Rodriguez feature in the weekly paper and some
local radio coverage of the event, after talking to a number of people to find
out how they’d heard about Rodriguez, I began to realize that this was a true
word-of-mouth phenomenon sparked by the Harvest Records guys and passed along
the grapevine simultaneously by curiosity seekers and folks who’d heard Cold Fact.

 

The band filed onstage and adjusted their instruments, then
Rodriguez emerged from the dressing room, dressed head-to-toe in black (boots,
jeans, shirt, under-vest and shades) and appearing utterly relaxed. Standing at
the mic and smiling at the audience, he adjusted the brim of his trademark
fedora (black, natch) as he joked about being from Detroit and having a mayor who got sent to jail.
He strapped on his hollow body electric guitar, nodded to the band, then
started into the strummy, loping sunshine pop of “Inner City Blues” (not the
Marvin Gaye song, it’s one of the standouts on Cold Fact, a song about hopelessness tempered by hope and leavened
by the cynicism wrought by the events of the late ‘60s). The horns left the
stage during the next song, “Only Good For Conversation,” one of the more
overtly psychedelic numbers on the album; as Rodriguez chopped at his guitar
and spat out his brutally direct lyrics (“My statue’s got a concrete heart/ But
you’re the coldest bitch I know”), Cartwright peeled off steely Jeff
Beck-styled leads and the rhythm section churned purposefully. The Dylanesque
“Crucify Your Mind” followed, with the horns returning to provide a stately,
soulful edge.

 

Just three tracks in, and the Grey Eagle crowd was pressing
against the stage and whooping with delight – won over, totally. What’s even
more remarkable is how quickly the musicians locked in together: no
tentativeness, no frowns or puzzled glances exchanged, no flubbed riffs or
awkward transitions that I detected. A few songs later Rodriguez, beaming
broadly, would glance at the other musicians and announce, “I love this band!”
He obviously meant it, too.

 

And so it went. Among the highlights were “I Wonder,”
strummy and boasting a signature, irresistible Motown bass whomp that Capon rendered
deftly as Wallace provided a jaunty, skittering sideways beat (“This song asks
a question,” Rodriguez said, by way of intro); and “Sugarman,” which elicited
immediate shouts of recognition and singing along from the crowd the moment Rodriguez
began (“This song is a descriptive song”), and with Cartwright and Roney
recreating the eerie, Joe Meek-styled background noises it bordered on
note-perfect. It’s worth noting that while the musicians had completely mastered
the material’s arrangements, the performances were anything but static.
Cartwright in particular contributed some inspired side flourishes (fuzz
guitar, etc.) and Roney’s keyboard fills, frequently in synch with the horns,
lent texture and colors around the edges.

 

Also featured were two songs from Coming From Reality, and though genuinely obscure (it’s likely that
only a handful of people in the room had ever heard that album) they slotted seamlessly in with the Cold Fact material: “I Think Of You” and
“To Whom It May Concern” – the latter, with its piano filigrees and a striking
guitar solo from Cartwright, proved to be one of the poppier, almost overtly
commercial, numbers of the evening. And a third non-Cold Fact song, “Can’t Get Away” was an unexpected treat: anthemic
and boasting a soaring melody, its propulsive choogle vibe gradually ensnared
the audience until the entire room appeared to be pumping along in tandem.
(Originally from a ’77 Australian anthology, At His Best, “Can’t Get Away” will be a bonus track on the Coming From Reality reissue, Light In
The Attic advises, adding that it was one of three final songs that Rodriguez
recorded with Cold Fact producers
Dennis Coffey & Mike Theodore after he returned to Detroit from the UK
where he’d cut Reality in late 1970.)

 

Well before the end of the show Rodriguez had worked up a sweat,
eventually shedding his outer shirt to reveal a trim, solid, vest-clad torso; for
a 66 year old man he’s fitter than most, with long, muscular arms plus large,
nimble hands like Richie Havens. And his voice: nearly as clear and resonant as
it is on the album, hints of Dylan, Donovan and Arthur Lee all informing his delivery
while still uniquely Rodriguez; you’d be hard pressed to apply the old “ravages
of age” argument to this particular survivor of the ‘60s/’70s. Smiling
continuously, his love of the material was palpable; his enthusiasm for the performance,
infectious. This natural, easygoing charisma had the effect of tugging the
audience into his aura, to the point where we were no longer pulling for an
underdog with a compelling comeback story – we were cheering and singing along
because he was that fucking good,
period.

 

After he departed the stage the crowd stomped and clapped
and demanded an encore, and when Cartwright came out to the microphone to egg
folks on, there was a pinch-me look on the guitarist’s face. Rodriguez
returned, this time with a young lady in tow that he introduced as his daughter
Regan; then she and Cartwright both left, leaving just Rodriguez and his guitar
alone under drawn-low, intimate lighting. He eased into the gentle, John
Lennonesque “Jane S. Piddy” that also closes Cold Fact, and I could swear I saw some of the onlookers tearing
up. Confident in delivery and acknowledging our response, Rodriguez made it
clear that he was moved by the events of the past hour or so. The fact that he
played on the night of what’s supposed to be the largest, brightest full moon
that will occur in 2009 didn’t hurt matters, either. Under the lunar spell,
both artist and audience shared a musical moment that, though brief, will
linger in memory for a very long time.

 

***

 

POSTSCRIPT: Afterwards I corralled a still-grinning
Cartwright who stated flatly, “That might be the most fun I ever had.” He pulled me into the
dressing room to introduce me to Rodriguez and Regan prior to the musician going
back out to the club, where a large contingent of fans awaited to get their CDs
and posters signed. Both father and daughter were impressed not only by the
Grey Eagle crowd but by the city in general, and Rodriguez talked a little
about how amazed he was at his backing musicians – “We could do the entire East
Coast!” he marveled – and how gratifying it was to have them put so much effort
into learning the material. Soft-spoken, with a playful lilt to his voice
that’s as genuine and affecting as his singing style, he seemed like an
exceedingly happy man, caught up in a moment of triumph and vindication that,
some four decades earlier, he’d probably reckoned would never come.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Joe Kendrick]

 

Leave a Reply