As he shuffles onstage and is shown to his microphone by an aid, it’s clear that Sixto Rodriguez’s 70 years have taken their toll on his body and his sight. Age hasn’t affected his voice, though: the man who was the subject of this year’s remarkable documentary Searching for Sugar Man has not seen his smooth, quietly soulful murmur ravaged by the decades.
Nor has age affected his mind, which remains as sharp as a tack. When an audience member shouts, “Where’ve you been?”, he mock-indignantly replies “Well, I wasn’t lost”, dons his trademark sunglasses and pulls the brim of his fedora low over his brow.
It’s a good question, though: Rodriguez the person may not have been lost, but for decades his music was overlooked – except in South Africa, where he was an unwitting folk-rock deity for generations. Even a year ago, the Detroit native couldn’t have dreamed of playing to a big crowd in Dublin; it’s testament to the power of the documentary, his rags-to-riches fairytale and his songs that he has easily sold out tonight’s gig.
The singer has drawn a surprisingly rowdy crowd, too – one that occasionally borders on disrespectful by the almost constant and hugely irritating cat-calling. Nevertheless, he and his fine four-piece band aren’t distracted from their task, and a run-through of tracks from both of his early-1970s albums reveals songs that are warm, catchy and socially conscious. Crucify Your Mind, I Wonder and his signature song Sugar Man share musical DNA with artists such as James Taylor and Donovan, while Only Good for Conversation uncovers a likeable blues-rock facet of his music.
There’s more to come, though: sweet, easygoing folk-pop in the form of I Think of You, and later, breezy covers of Blue Suede Shoes and Like a Rolling Stone.
In the early part of his career, Rodriguez, like many musicians throughout the years, was touted as “the next Dylan”. He may never have achieved the dizzying heights of folk heroism, but there is something indubitably heroic about the slight, self-effacing man in black, who stands on stage and sings these beautiful, simple songs.