‘Are there any Africans 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.