Sixto Rodriguez didn’t need to play a note to earn a standing ovation Thursday night at the Neptune. All he had to do was walk through the sold-out crowd, a full hour before show time. When he came back to sing “Climb Up on My Music” to start the show, it was to even wilder cheers.
A few years ago Rodriguez was working construction in Detroit, having left music decades earlier. Then Seattle label Light in the Attic reissued his two albums, and the Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” followed.
In the flesh, Rodriguez was funny, talkative and gave a shout-out to his label.
“It started here, in Seattle, for me,” he said, “with Light in the Attic.”
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He seemed moved by the attention and thanked the crowd many times.
The Neptune show sold out quickly, and Rodriguez is playing venues as big as 18,000 at other cities on this tour. Yet for all his present success, Rodriguez’s songs are intimate folk melodies that are moving because of their vivid lyrics.
“Street Boy” was particularly endearing. After playing “Sugar Man,” he warned the crowd the song was “descriptive, not prescriptive,” and to stay off drugs. One woman yelled, “Too late.”
Rodriguez told jokes during the many times he struggled to tune his guitar. There were technical problems throughout. Since he doesn’t maintain one particular band, it did not appear that he had extensively rehearsed with this three-piece backing band, which unfortunately made the performance feel disjointed.
And though Rodriguez is still a compelling performer for being 70 years old, some in the crowd likely expected to hear the same vocal range he displayed on his albums. That wasn’t there, nor did the arrangements have the horns and strings of those albums. In some cities, Rodriguez has brought up a horn section, and his Seattle show would have benefited from that.
He included several covers, and “Fever” had soul. “Lucille” was less successful. “My Eyes Adored You” fit Rodriguez’s voice better.
But it was Rodriguez’s own songs that ruled the night. “I Wonder,” the highlight of the documentary, lacked the dominant bass line of the record, but was still upbeat.
“I just want to get treated like an ordinary legend,” he joked after that tune.
With the wide success of the documentary, and his albums on the charts for the first time, there was truth there, too. For all the ordinariness of his performance Thursday, Rodriguez is indeed a legend, with a winning humbleness to him that was more infectious than his singing.
The crowd honored that legend with wild applause before, during and after his Neptune show. After 40 years of obscurity, he deserved it.
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org.