Amazingly odd performance from reborn ‘Sugar Man’

Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post - Folk singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez performs a sold-out show at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

The newest new Dylan is 70 years old.

Sixto Rodriguez, born in Detroit in 1942, played a charming and awesomely odd show Thursday in front of a worshipful sold-out house at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. The folk and light-rock crooner has gone from invisible to media darling since the release of “Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary about fans overseas trying to find out if Rodriguez, whose recordings from the 1970s never found an audience in his home country but were beloved and popular in faraway lands such as Australia and South Africa, was as dead as rumors had him. The filmmakers found him living rather anonymously in the Motor City and coaxed him back into show biz. He’s been a newsmagazine staple all year.

Not surprisingly, Rodriguez’s contemporary live show can’t compete with his back story as a reborn pop star. He is, again, 70 years old, and he made his way through the crowd as if he really needed the significant physical assistance provided to him by a production staffer.

The blatant unprofessionalness of the proceedings was by far the most fascinating aspect of the performance; it’s not every day that somebody so seemingly unprepared to be on any stage gets a headlining gig at a sold-out theater. Buskers don’t get to play Carnegie Hall. But the folks who packed the seats of the old temple knew they were in for a night different from every other night, and they overlooked whatever musical shortcomings plagued the hour-long solo set to just soak in the sweetness.

Rodriguez’s guitar always buzzed and was usually way out of tune, and his fingers don’t navigate the fretboard as nimbly as, judging from his recorded product, they once did.

His diminished technical ability didn’t stop him from attempting the complicated riffs of his vintage songs, such as the Marvin Gaye-like drug culture ballad “Sugar Man.” Several tunes were full of period-piece and Dylanesque put-down lines, such as “Crucify Your Mind” (“You claim you got something going /Something you call unique”) and “Like Janis” (“You try to conceal your ordinary ways with a smile or a shrug or a stolen cliche”).

Rodriguez, who was dressed in an all-black outfit topped by a fabulous hat that could have been taken from the wardrobe of ’70s anti-hero Billy Jack, described himself as “a musical political,” didn’t use a set list and often seemed bewildered about what to play next. So there were surprising cover songs, the oddballest choice being “Blue Suede Shoes.”

The outsider-art vibe of the evening was enhanced by his spoken offerings, which included a stale and off-color joke about Minnie Mouse and Goofy’s sexual escapades, an endorsement of President Obama’s candidacy and Confuciusesque wisdom such as “The secret to life: All you got to do is breathe in and out!” and “Trust no one,” which he mumbled before his soft-rock ditty from “I Wonder.”

But nobody came expecting glitz and polish. A fan up front, summing up the crowd’s mood quite nicely, stood up every few minutes and gave Rodriguez the “We’re not worthy!” salute from “Wayne’s World.”

McKenna is a freelance writer.

 
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