In the foyer before the show I spotted a woman in a white scarf with electric pink peace signs batiked onto it. I felt myself relax and let that old 1970s happiness wash over me. I noticed another woman wearing a flower in her hair as the Grand Arena slowly filled, but all this self-conscious worshipping of the Seventies didn’t mean it was only fifty-plus people in the seats: a sea of smooth long-haired women and young men in clean clothes without frayed edges occupied the best seats at the front.
A couple danced in the aisle to the music of The Doors coming over the loud speakers, twirling romantically and happily, bowing as if at a wedding dance rehearsal. The audience loved them, they were so ready to rock.
Warm up act Newton’s Second Law proved worthy of the stage and the audience. The very listenable, smooth lead singer has some interesting Tom Waits crumbs in his voice is backed by a happy, well-rehearsed group playing a variety of jump-up and dance stuff, or drift and listen carefully stuff, high-calibre musicianship, more than worthy of introducing our icon, Rodriguez.
And what feast of excellence and heart awaited us.
The moment Rodriguez stepped onto the stage I was transported back to age 14 when my best friend whispered about ‘Sugarman’ being a song about drugs. Our LP records were played to dust – dust which engrained itself in our brains, our hearts and our minds. And the echoes live on: for my daughters the Just Jinjer version of the same song symbolises the great sea of teenagerhood. Seeing the legendary Rodriguez on stage – the icon, the enigma, right before me in the flesh – I had a moment of “I can’t believe I’m here” and “I can’t believe it’s him” and “I can’t believe I’m 55 and listening to this man perform at last.” It was like seeing a long-lost lover again.
Rodriguez says he’s 70 but he is still a visually desirable person with his long black hair, shy smile and capable guitar-playing hands. His presence is gentle, humane, focused on the music.
The songs were so familiar, but every moment of the performance was alive and fresh, his guitar work and his voice holding us. The audience sang, clapped, whistled with excitement at the opening chords of favourite songs. The set was interspersed with a few jazz numbers with a bit of Dylan thrown in too, but it was his own songs we screamed for. Rodriguez by himself would have been enough of a thrill, but an accomplished performance was built up into a theatrical experience with a light show and a full sound from two other guitarists, two drummers and a stunning percussionist.
Best of all was his unrushed performance. This is a man who takes his time on everything, even on growing old. His voice is still warm and confident without a shadow of age and his small gestures of introductory notes to the band on stage revealed a relaxed showmanship and a sense of being at home and at one with his own music.
And for a man of 70, Rodriguez’s vocal range is still good and he is unafraid to launch into a song in a higher key, knowing he has voice to go all the way. The famous ‘Sugarman’ was a bright, psychedelic, rich sound, not the simple voice and restrained backing we know from his original recording; it was the same ‘Sugarman’, only a bigger experience.
And it was an experience never to be forgotten. At the audience’s demand, Rodriguez returned for encores, but only offered jazz covers. We clamoured for our favourites, but perhaps he knew that however much we heard we would never have enough.
Pauline de Villiers
Rodriguez performed three concerts at the Grand Arena, GrandWest in Cape Town, on 10, 20 and 21 February 2013.