If anticipation can be measured by the throng factor, Monday night's Rodriguez gig in Salt Lake City had no shortage of it, as the line at The Complex seemed to stretch all the way to Motown. Who knew that serious tests of mental and physical stamina lay ahead?
The sudden American love affair with Detroit's elusive and enigmatic poet of the streets is evidently an Oscar-fueled phenomenon. That his rich voice penetrates and sticks with you and that his lyrics call out the cons and shams of the world were hot facts that made waves (perhaps by happenstance) in faraway places namely in South Africa and, to a lesser extent, in Australia.
But during the forty odd years since the release of his debut 45 and two subsequent albums a recording history that includes an effort by his label to mask his Mexican heritage his mark on the American musical consciousness couldn't have grown more faint.
Then, last year, the story of his mysterious life of his apparent "disappearance," of his remarkable status (unwittingly achieved) as a counter-cultural icon for anti-Apartheid youth was brought to the fore in "Searching for Sugar Man," which won the top Tinseltown prize for a documentary. And, suddenly, pushing 70, Rodriguez finally got his countrymen's attention.
Which brings us back to last night, and a sold-out show, whose average attendee was, unsurprisingly, also closer to 70 (than, say, to 20).
The Rockwell, the largest of four venues at The Complex, is said to hold 2,500 people. While that may have been the actual number, for several reasons it felt as if it were twice that. A large area in front of the stage had the lucky first comers, who got to take a seat, and who were thus afforded some room to breathe. All those packed behind these much-envied loungers were subjected to a body-on-body sauna experience, which, inexplicably, was not alleviated until almost two hours after the nominal start of the show. In other words, what was a terribly stuffy atmosphere from the get-go, was allowed to deteriorate through the long wait for the opening act the impressively energetic and catchy folk rockers Jenny O. and band through the opening act's half-hour stand, and through another longish wait (amid a palpably irritated and restless crowd) for the headliner.
It was nearly 10 p.m. when fresh air was mercifully piped in. A few dozen collective deep breaths later, Rodriguez, whose sight is failing, was helped on stage. His nearly two-hour set featured more than 20 songs, including a three-song encore. Wearing black from shoulders down, a hobo hat and glasses, Rodriguez flavored most of the songs with the rhythm of his acoustic guitar, which he strums with a resonant, all-finger style, occasionally reminiscent of flamenco.
The welcome was warm, and the appreciation of the first few numbers (culminating in the infectious "I Wonder") had in it that mixture of feeling where one is trying to square the man onstage with the mystical portrait of him created by the film.
At that point, what was suspected throughout the Jenny O. set, became achingly clear: the acoustics were deplorable. As a result, the first half of the show oscillated between barely audible vocals (on such tunes as Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things" and Rodriguez's original "Street Boy") and frequent calls from the audience to turn up the sound.
An infusion of energy came with a rendition of Little Richard's "Lucille," an effect made visible by a small contingent of below-stage fans, whose dancing contrasted mightily with the sea of stiff heads that fanned out beyond.
The audience again perked up with the first line of "Sugar Man," that solemn hymn to mind-altered escapes from common disillusionments. But, by then, an exodus of those unwilling to strain to hear was noticeable.
Which was both a shame and a blessing. Once the crowd started to thin the acoustics seemed to improve and the enthusiasm from the stage began to rise as well.
Those who stayed to the end were treated to a foot-stomping run through "The Establishment Blues" which both lyrically and by delivery recalls Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding") a rollicking "Blue Suede Shoes," a respectable take on the oft-covered "Fever," and a satisfying coda comprised of "Like a Rolling Stone" and Rodriguez's own melodic and acerbic masterwork "Crucify Your Mind."
There were moments when Rodriguez's voice sounded strong, his distinctive enunciation comparable to the crispness achieved (by his, admittedly, much younger self) in the studio. Stripped of the instrumentation (namely horns and strings) that gives his albums that all-too-groovy weight, his best songs, despite the exaggerations that recent attention has inspired, are good enough to be remembered when he's gone.
The uneven sound made it impossible to judge the quality of Rodriguez's backing band. But the high points of the night were tantalizing enough to wish one got a second chance in a smaller venue, with equipment attuned to the art of being heard.
R The Detroit rocker offers a tantalizing show despite deplorable acoustics.
With • Jenny O
Where • The Complex
When • Reviewed Monday, April 29
Running time • 120 minutes