Fans and curiosity-seekers who first sold out the Rialto and then AVA to see this until-recently-anonymous 70-year-old grandfather and construction worker, may have experienced even more than they bargained for at Friday's concert.
Somewhat lost in the legend, the mystery, the Academy-Award winning documentary and the one titillating, drug-drenched song that everyone seems to know, is an entire catalog of Rodriguez's music. They capture just-right gems of words glinting with passion, anger or ennui. And his live-performance style sets them in the precisely gentle diction of, say, Orson Welles. Most stunning, even now his melodic and limber voice could open heaven's gate.
Stripped of the lavish '70s production tropes on Rodriguez's records and set to the bare accompaniment of a Detroit trio, that voice and those songs were the alpha and omega of what's likely to be remembered as one of the best live shows of 2013.
The audience predictably broke out the phone cameras for what have become Rodriguez' latter-day hits, "Sugar Man" and "I Wonder," both featured on the Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack. But few sang along, and most sat and applauded politely throughout the show. Exceptions were a handful of front-row rowdies, frequently visited by security on behalf of surrounding ticket-holders. "I know it's the drinks," Rodriguez told them, almost shyly, "But I love you back."
Although appearing comfortable and fearless onstage, Rodriguez seldom spoke. But when he said a few words in Spanish, the crowd went wild. "I just want to be treated like an ordinary legend," he said. There was also an awesome Mickey Mouse joke.
Rodriguez huddled with his band frequently between songs, which often resulted in a fun cover. Little Richard's "Lucille" and Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" drew the most excitement from the mostly boomer-aged crowd. His brooding, minor-mode treatment of Frank Sinatra's "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die" was a uniquely dark and dangerous interpretation.
Howe Gelb and Giant Giant Sand seemed fitting openers, given the years that Gelb was a rock star in Europe and virtually without honor in his own home. Even within the structure of a sizable ensemble, Gelb was predictably unpredictable. Most entertaining was the band's "Molly Maguire," which seems to send up everything Ennio Morricone ever stood for, but in his own vernacular.