At the Rodriguez show at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom last week the line stretched down the block. What you’d call a mature crowd. The hippies of yesteryear back together again to commune with one of their own: a 70-year-old singer/songwriter who in the early 1970s released two albums of taut socio-political commentary and piercing portraits of romance and heartbreak were ignored, then buried beneath the boots of the hit parade. That they have only now gained public attention makes them cultural paradoxes. They’re oldies that are also new, music through a time warp.
I’m guessing you know Sixto Rodriguez’s backstory by now. If not, go see “Searching for Sugar Man,” the spellbinding documentary that details how the Detroit musician fell into an obscurity so deep that he had no idea that his seemingly ignored music migrated to South Africa, where they sold in quantity. At the same time his songs became totems for the country’s anti-apartheid activists, while their missing-and-presumed-dead creator became symbolic of the sorrow and moral purpose of the struggle against their racist government.
There’s a lot more to the movie, including footage of Rodriguez’s South African debut performance in 1998, where his emergence on the arena stage triggered an emotional onrush — cheers, applause, tears — so intense the musician could only shake his head and smile. His journey from (suspected) death to full, joyous life symbolized their nation’s painful evolution from tyranny to freedom.
In Portland last week the stakes were different. The mostly middle aged-and-older crowd, came in aged denims and vaguely funky shirts and sweaters. Where hair still existed it came in shades of silver or shades of black and brown that only kind of matched the faces beneath. I remembered the adults I squeezed among at shows in the mid-1970s and imagined the night as a kind of time machine. Everyone in pursuit of their younger selves, and a glimmer of the time when they believed they, and their music, really could change the world. [Read more…]