'Are there any [Afrikaaners] in the house?" joked Sixto Diaz Rodriguez as he took the stage at a sold-out World Cafe Live on Sunday night. As fate would have it, the 70-year-old psych-folk singer from Detroit owes his belated fame to the people of South Africa.
After his two critically acclaimed, early-1970s albums flopped in the United States, Rodriguez all but vanished from the music scene. But copies of those records found their way to South Africa, where they became, unbeknownst to him, the soundtrack to the antiapartheid movement. The unbelievable story - including Rodriguez's decades-later tour of packed South African arenas - is recounted in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which spurred the most recent rediscovery of the artist. (The 2009 reissue of his albums sparked the first.)
A visibly frail Rodriguez shuffled onto stage wearing a gray suit, bolo tie, and his trademark floppy hat and sunglasses. All alone on the stage with his thin-bodied acoustic guitar, he launched into a cover of Peggy Lee's "Fever." Strumming nimbly, Rodriguez strung together originals (most from 1970's Cold Fact) and covers, including Lou Rawls' "Dead End Street" and Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," all interspersed with banter that was a cross between grandpa humor and Zen Buddhism.
The covers were a nice addition to his set, but it was the originals off those two magical albums, the extent of Rodriguez's studio work, that enchanted. Listening as he sang "A monkey in silk is a monkey no less" from "Like Janis" or "Papa don't allow no new ideas here" on "Inner City Blues," it was difficult to not wonder - what if? What if these poetic, Dylan/Donovan-esque songs had met with even a modicum of initial success? What if Rodriguez had known he was bigger than the Beatles in Cape Town? Had he stuck with it, how many classics might he have written in the intervening 40 years?
Of course, that game is a losing proposition, and one Rodriguez would likely answer with a joke like this one from Sunday night: "Want to know the secret of life? Just keep breathing in and out."