Because of one thing and another, I never got to see any of Rodriguez’s previous concerts in South Africa. After watching the documentary I rued not seeing that first concert in Cape Town, which looked so incredible and heart-warming, although a friend insists the reality was very different to the celluloid; that Rodriguez was so intoxicated he could barely sing, and that the crowd were more confused and disappointed than the enraptured and awed they appeared on screen. Don’t know if that’s true or not.
This time around perhaps the concert was lacking in other ways, after all Rodriguez is 70 now – and quite an ‘old’ 70, when I think of my sprightly 83-year-old grandfather. But it was still one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had. Just to hear those great lyrics live, and that voice, which really hasn’t lost much since 1970.
We were … a bit late for the start, but I heard everything I wanted to. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what we missed. I thought the songs seemed shorter than they are on the recording, and they may have been, although most of the tracks on Cold Fact clock in at about two and a half minutes. He also did a Frank Sinatra cover, and Elvis’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and the encore started with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
I do have a strong suspicion that the key of his songs was dropped a note or two for this concert to accommodate Rodriguez’s aging vocal chords, as I can sing along to the LP (which I got from my mother) just fine but found that live it was either too high or too low for my voice. I belted them out enthusiastically anyway, much to the enjoyment of my neighbours, I’m sure.
A few songs into the concert I noticed Rodriguez picking out the beginning of a song, but no sound was coming through the speakers, and I thought some kind of malfunction was afoot. Then I realised he was just practising the fingering. He would shuffle to the side, turn the volume on his guitar down, run through the intro once or twice, and then turn it back up and start – all the while staring eerily straight ahead; he’s almost blind, apparently. He certainly had to be lead offstage. And then lead onstage again for the encore.
The more intricate intros, ‘Like Janis’s’ for example, he struggled through falteringly and if it had been anyone else I may have asked for my money back, but with Rodriguez there were things that made up for it. That amazing voice, the excitement of seeing one of my favourite musicians ever in the flesh at last, and then something that I didn’t expect from an aging mythical inner-city poet: his irreverence. I mean, Rodriguez can write lyrics, and they sure are meaningful and deep, but he’s pretty funny for an old guy too. And that was also really refreshing to see in the context of the documentary and the holy aura that most band-wagon jumpers seem to be able to see glowing around every crisp new copy of Searching for Sugar Man.
At a quiet point between songs (this being the Arena at Grand West, where we all sit in neat rows like at a school assembly – kak venue) some women yelled ‘We love you!’ and Rodriguez instantly came back with ‘Love you too, baby … I know it’s the drinks but keep talking.’ A little later someone else yelled something incoherent along the lines of ‘We love you’ or ‘South Africa loves you’, and he just grinned and leaned forward to the mic and said ‘Drive safe.’ Thus implying that they were drunk! Hilarious.
Later still someone yelled ‘You’re a legend!’ and he replied ‘I just want to be treated like an ordinary … legend’, which was probably the quote of the evening.
Right at the end, just before he played Sugar Man for the second time (it was the only song he repeated) he said: ‘Sugar man.’ And then something about drugs being not great that I couldn’t hear clearly, and then: ‘Be smart, don’t start.’ And I was like oh no! He’s gone straight! This is so not rock ’n’ roll! But then he added ‘But 17 states in America have just legalised marijuana. [cheeky grin] Or have I said too much?’
What a relief! He’s still cool, guys.