Sixto Diaz Rodriguez is one of the most enigmatic musical cult figures of recent times. Born in Detroit in 1942, he released two albums in the early 1970's -- the cult classic Cold fact from 1970, and a follow up Coming from reality released in 1971. I have talked about Cold fact many times on this blog (see my review here); there is no need to reiterate what I have said before about it. It is a lost classic which deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.
Sixto (who has also gone by the name Jesus Rodriguez, and just plain old Rodriguez) never made it in his home country. He did, however, develop a fairly significant cult following in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and New Zealand, even going platinum in South Africa. But Rodriguez was unaware of his popularity overseas, and had already decided to give up the music business after failing to crack the big time in the United States. He played a few shows in Australia in the late 70's and early 80's (his 1981 tour in support of local act Midnight Oil) before returning to Detroit where he continued to lead a normal life raising a family and working various jobs including a petrol station attendant and labourer.
In the late 90's, Sixto's daughter realised her father had an overseas fanbase when she discovered a fan website dedicated to him. In the meantime, his cult following in Australia only became bigger; Cold fact had become a word-of-mouth classic and his popularity continued to grow. He was eventually tracked down in an internet campaign in the late 90's, completely oblivious to the fact that he had such a huge following. To add to the mystery that is Sixto Rodriguez, there were also rumours that he had committed suicide while on stage; rumours which he was completely unaware of.
When I heard that he was touring in April, I was very excited at the opportunity to see the man live. I wanted to go because he is a brilliant musician, but I also wanted to go to unravel the mystery that is Rodriguez. I wanted to see the genius who had written and recorded Cold fact, this mysterious man who had recorded such a classic and then faded into obscurity. I wanted to get some answers.
Rodriguez was supported by Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience from New Orleans, and they were one of the best support acts I have seen in a long time. Here for the Blues & Roots festival in Byron Bay, they were an incredibly tight 6-piece band, incorporating accordion and different types of percussion (including an interesting metal vest) into an awe-inspiring New Orleans sound. While most giggers tend to kick back during the support act, I was impressed by the amount of people watching these guys; they definitely deserved it.
Rodriguez took to the stage with some help from a roadie amidst cheers from the crowd. He is 65, and clearly a frail man. Opening with the classic I wonder from Cold fact, his demeanor throughout the 90-minute set could only be described as languid, taking a few minutes between songs to either regain his composure, work out what song to play next or say a few words to the audience. When he did speak, he spoke in fragments, dropping a few odd comments: "Don't trust women. You know why? Because you can't trust men!" and "The zeroes are the heroes" (referring to those born after 2000, from what I could understand).
His setlist covered most of the songs from Cold fact (highlights being Crucify your mind, Sugar man and pre-encore set closer Forget it); the only notable omission for me was Hate street dialogue which is one of my favourite Rodriguez songs, but he may not have a personal connection to this song because he didn't write it. He played quite a few songs which I didn't know, and I presume that they were either from his second album or his best-of compilation At his best. He also did a few covers -- a great medley of old rock 'n' roll songs including Shake, rattle & roll, Subterranean homesick blues, Have some fun tonight and Hound dog; and a nice version of At last by Ella Fitzgerald.
Did this gig unravel the enigma that is Rodriguez? Well, yes and no. I can now truly say that he is one of the most truly humble musicicans I have ever seen. What was most apparent when he spoke was how simultaneously bewildered and appreciative he was of his fan following in Australia. Here was a man who was completely unaware of his own popularity, and it was so refreshing seeing someone of his popularity exhibit such a modest persona. This made the gig an emotional experience for me as a fan; while most gigs are very much one-way in their audience->artist connection, I couldn't help but feel that our applause and cheering meant as much to him as his performance meant to us. But while I did finally got to learn a bit more about the man, there's still something incredibly puzzling about him and you can't help but feel that there's more to him than he lets on.
After the gig, I said goodbye to Pete who was with me, and as I was heading back to my car I noticed a small crowd gathering outside the back entrance to the Corner Hotel. I realised they were queueing up to catch a glimpse of their idol, and since it wasn't a school night I thought I'd hang around as well. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the front and back of the Corner, we discovered that Rodriguez was at the merchandise desk signing copies of posters which they were selling. I joined the queue and managed to get a card signed, as well as two ticket stubs (one made out to me, one to Pete). I also had a brief chat with him, telling him that Cold fact was my favourite album of all time (only a slight exaggeration, as it's almost up there), to which his typically humble response was "Oh thank you, thank you so much. Are you a musician?". "No", I said. "Just a big music fan."
Here some notable photos and videos from the night:
Terrance Simian & The Zydeco Experience in action.
Some other members of The Zydeco Experience.
One of the more common poses adopted by Rodriguez while on stage.
Rodriguez performing I wonder.
Pretty poor video and audio quality, because I took this with my digital still camera.
Rodriguez performing Forget it. Ditto about the video and audio quality.
Unfortunately my camera ran out of memory while recording this, so it cuts out before the end.