Rodriguez remains more of a movie star than a rock hero. Or, more accurately, a star made by a movie. He was the subject of the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” the story of an early 1970s U.S. folk-rock singer who had somehow become a beloved cult hero in South Africa and two fans who tracked him down in Detroit in the 1990s and brought him to play big sold-out concerts in their country.
The movie won an Oscar for best documentary in 2013 — and then Rodriguez won a career.
Rodriguez, 71, entered the State Theatre on Saturday the same way he had in May 2013 at the sold-out Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul — moving fragilely on the arms of two young women. Actually, one was carrying a baby this time. The other difference from last year was that the crowd — and venue — were twice as big. Also, Rodriguez was wearing a stylish brocade jacket, with tuxedo pants, a black dress shirt and bolo tie — a significant upgrade from his hippie gear of last year.
Of course, he was still sporting his floppy-brimmed hat and dark glasses, both of which he put on after being led to the microphone at center stage.
On the second time around, Rodriguez was more comfortable, confident and convincing. He didn’t seem as dumbstruck about his comeback; this time he seemed to own it.
The soft-spoken Detroiter came across as humble and grateful, doffing his hat after a vociferous reaction to a few songs. He wasn’t shy about speaking up this time — whether he started the conversation or a fan did.
After he sang “Sugar Man,” he declared that “this is a descriptive, not prescriptive, song.” Get off drugs, he urged; “stay smart, don’t start.”
When a female fan shouted her love for Rodriguez, he retorted: “I know it was the drinks, but I love you back.”
Bellowed a male fan: “I’m sober, and I love you.”
When Rodriguez asked if anyone in the audience was from Detroit and a handful of folks applauded, he joked, “My deepest condolences.”
He also seized a moment to shout “peace to Ukraine” and endorse the power of an economic boycott, saying it worked in South Africa. “I consider myself musical/political,” he explained. “So I speak to the issues. I’m a solid 71. I have to use my senior advantage.”
Rodriguez’s persona of the aging hippie with heartfelt but hackneyed aphorisms and lightning-quick wit meshed perfectly with his Dylan-inspired folk-rock, with its tinges of jazz, blues and psychedelia. Whether serving up social commentary (“Inner City Blues”) or dissecting a failed relationship (“I Wonder”), he used his pretty melodies and sweet voice to defuse his sad, bitter and sometimes blistering lyrics.
His spirit seemed fresh and positive, bolstered by three simpatico musicians (two Brits and a New Zealander) who looked half his age. The singer clearly wants to seize his new opportunity with enthusiasm.
The only time Rodriguez raised his voice was on a rocking rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille,” proof that he can be an emphatic vocalist when he chooses to be. However, his vocals didn’t bite as hard as his lyrics on “Rich Folk Hoax” and “Establishment Blues,” a ’60s-styled Dylanesque diatribe. Of course, Rodriguez’s original tunes date back to his albums released in ’70 and ’71.
He also dusted off Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” delivered a gently swinging rendition of Little Willie John’s “Fever” and closed with the Sinatra chestnut, “I’m Gonna Live till I Die,” which may be the theme song of the newly rediscovered Rodriguez.
In the end, this thoroughly enjoyable 75-minute concert felt more significant as a pop-culture moment than a musical one because, frankly, Rodriguez really is more of a movie hero than a rock star.