Sixto Rodriguez played in San Francisco on Friday night, for just the second time since the 1970 release of his cult classic album Cold Fact. Rodriguez didn’t headline a show in the United States until August 2008 because Cold Fact unfairly tanked on release. Against all odds, that album would later find a platinum second life in South Africa and Australia that allowed him to resurrect his career in the 90’s. His music is stripped-down psychedelic folk, a few degrees angrier than Dylan, but with that same kind of dense wordplay and acute social observation. Rodriguez is a Detroit native, so much of his music concerns the plight of the down-and-out and includes plenty of rough edges and heavy language, which may have contributed to the stop/start nature of his career.
But regardless of the winding road that he took to get there, Rodriguez hit the stage a few minutes after 11pm, along with an eight-piece band that included sax, trombone, and flute. Comeback concerts of this sort are always nail-biting affairs, especially when the artist involved has been in moth balls for so long, and I’ve grown to love the accompanying album as much as Cold Fact. Shuggie Otis broke my heart under similar circumstances a few years back with a horrible, horrible, horrible (I could just keep typing it forever) show that emptied The Fillmore in record time and left me pitching his discs in the recycling bin. So when Rodriguez hit the stage, my fingers were crossed… tightly.
He was led to the front of the stage by a young handler, and it was obvious that his sight isn’t all it could be. When the guitarist in his band started showing him the fingering for the first song, I thought we were all doomed to a long evening in hell. And then he started playing, and everything was ok. His voice is more frail than what’s on record from 40 years ago, but that’s to be expected. Other than that, he sounded shockingly good. His band really brought it, especially on a fantastic version of ‘Sugar Man’ that included a squalling horn freakout that would have made Pharaoh Sanders smile.
‘Establishment Blues’ was another highlight – it’s always impressive to hear a 66-year old man throw himself into lyrics like “This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune/And that’s a concrete cold fact.” His set list also included a bunch of other fine songs that nobody’s ever heard of – songs that had this less-than-capacity crowd singing along, cheering wildly, and yelling out props for the flautist. Late in his set, in response to one of the many shouted WE LOVE YOU‘s from the crowd, Rodriguez gazed out from behind his cooler-than-cool sunglasses and had a moment of recognition. “I know my audience,” he said with a big grin. “Drive safe man.”
[Partial set list…]