He seemed frail when escorted onstage by two women Wednesday at the sold-out Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. But then he put on his dark-tinted glasses, his floppy black hat and his beige guitar and suddenly he transformed into Rodriguez, musician of mystery, melancholy and that Oscar-winning movie.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” which took the Academy Award this year for best documentary, told the story of an obscure Detroit folk-rock singer whose two albums from the early 1970s had somehow made him into a beloved cult hero in South Africa. Two obsessive fans there started searching for the singer, thought to be dead, and not only found him in Detroit but then brought him to South Africa for a series of major concerts in the late 1990s. It was all filmed and eventually turned into a 2012 movie.
It’s a fascinating story and a terrific footnote in rock history — that Rodriguez’s career was relaunched by an Oscar-honored movie.
And Rodriguez’s concert at the Fitzgerald was as winning as the movie. Maybe more so.
Rodriguez, 70, is a star who is masterful at playing the anti-star. With his face framed by long hair and that floppy hat pulled down low, he seemed painfully shy, like the man in the documentary who played with his back to the audience early in his career. Between songs in St. Paul, he was quiet at first, then told a silly old joke about Mickey Mouse, Minnie and Goofy and eventually segued into witty comments and self-deprecating humor.
“I’m a solid 70,” he said. “On May 9, I received a doctorate at Wayne State University. [He also has a B.A. from there in philosophy.] I don’t know if that means I’m smart — or educated. I want everyone to know that I want to be treated like an ordinary legend.”
Not only did Rodriguez prove to be funnier than expected but also more musically satisfying than the movie or its soundtrack suggest. While his songs clearly owe a debt to 1960s Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Rodriguez demonstrated a gift for writing lyrics and melodies, a flair for expressing sadness and sweetness. The guy is unquestionably a romantic (he crooned the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” as if it were a jazz standard) even if the heartbreak songs like “Forget It” had more impact.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have the vocal bite to match the bitterness of his lyrics. Backed by a trio that played at living-room volume, his voice was soft and thin. His phrasing was positively Dylanesque at times but he never punched his words for emphasis the way the bard does. Interestingly, the only times Rodriquez raised his voice in song were on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and a bluesy treatment of Little Richard’s “Lucille.”
Rodriguez also offered political pieces, which helped to make him a hero in South Africa with both blacks and liberal Afrikaner youth. Though dated in its talking-blues style, the message of “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues” still resonated with the singer’s worshipful audience in St. Paul.
The crowd cheered at the opening notes of several songs from “Searching for Sugar Man.” Two insistent fans kept shouting a request for “Cause,” a tune from the movie.
Finally, Rodriguez, who had been hunched over with posture that suggested Neil Young, looked up and explained. “It’s such a brooding song. I try to keep it light. It’s too pensive sometimes. But thanks for asking.”
That may be one of the best rejoinders to a song request ever uttered. But what else would you expect from an anti-star who exuded a peaceful calm all night, even when singing about heartbreak and pain. After all, how can you argue with a mysterious hipster folk-rocker who philosophizes to his fans: “Hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you really don’t like.”
For a set list: www.startribune.com/artcetera