On a Saturday night, many gathered for a performance of the legendary singer-songwriter and Oscar winner, Rodriguez, at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the Cal State L.A. campus in East Los Angeles. Searching for Sugar Man documented Rodriguez’s story of being a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early ’70s albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts.
A little before 8:00 p.m., attendees were enjoying the reception right outside the theater, complete with a taco stand, beverages and a DJ. But those who were seated promptly at 8:00 p.m. were treated to a stunning performance by singer-songwriter Vera Sola.
“Hello Los Angeles,” Vera Sola greeted the seated audience. “We’re about to have a discussion…” she trailed into song. She played a solo set with plenty of arpeggiated guitar and deep vocals. She wandered and slinked about the stage, never missing a beat as she pierced the audience with her intense gaze. She performed songs from her upcoming album Shades and took time between each song to share a little bit about them. “A lot of these songs are funny,” she shared after a particularly dark love song, “Small Minds,” to which the crowd laughed. But the highlight of her set was a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” where she turned disco into folk and showcased the full range of her vocals, from trembling to belting. The crowd cheered during and after the song and she replied, “That’s how I do a disco song.” She performed a couple more songs, each with their own unique story—one about a woman she met in Mississippi named Honey, and another dedicated to her sister with powerful lyrics like, “got the universe inside my body.”
While the audience waited eagerly for Rodriguez to take the stage, a performer by the name of S.K. took the stage, guitar in hand, and performed a couple original songs including “Don’t Go Changing” and “Solution,” as well as a couple covers the crowd got into including Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul” and New Kingdom’s “Mexico or Bust.”
Shortly after, Rodriguez took the stage with the help of his posse, and the crowd cheered as loud as they could. Rodriguez took a seat and was left solo with his guitar on stage. “I always check the tuning—trust no one,” he shared as he re-tuned his guitar. Some phrases he repeated throughout the night included, “I was born in 1942,” “I’m a musical activist” and “I have a few words for the commander in chief,” just to paint a picture. The crowd took the liberty of speaking back to Rodriguez whenever there was a pause. “Rodriguez for President!” One man said, which was followed by cheers. He played a few covers throughout the set, opening with Elton John’s “Your Song” and “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis and later playing The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” He performed mostly solo, sometimes accompanied by tambourine or maracas.
Rodriguez shared openly about his political views and activism, sharing that he’d ran for mayor of Detroit, his city of origin. He also shared his distaste for current events, “how about the 300 priests in Pennsylvania?” The crowd groaned along. But he also kept things light at times, joking, “I want to be treated like an ordinary legend.” The crowd hooted and cheered along to songs like “The Establishment Blues,” moving their heads along to the rhythm. “Would you like to know my thesis?” Rodriguez asked the crowd, who were on the edge of their seats hanging on to every word… ” O.R. Oppression will result in revolution!” One audience member replied, “help us, Rodriguez, you’re our only hope!” “Power to the people!” He replied as he got ready for the next song, “You’d Like to Admit It.” About halfway into the set, he put down his hat and put on goggles, which he left on for the rest of the set. “It was only when I left Detroit that I realized people smiled,” he chuckled. The crowd started shouting out the cities they were from… “Berlin!” “East Los!” and Rodriguez looked around the audience, listening with intent. Some sang along to “Sugarman,” one of the more popular songs of the night. Stage lights danced around the audience. After the song, Rodriguez warned, “Sugarman is a descriptive song, not prescriptive. Stay off drugs!”
The stage lights made it appear as though he was playing in a pool of water with flowers bobbing on the surface, adding a soothing element to his folk style performance. Before going into another popular song, “I Wonder,” he shared some words of wisdom: “It’s not kill or be killed, it’s live and let live.” The crowd sang and clapped along. He closed the set with “Forget It,” and everyone waited eagerly for an encore, which they received. He closed the night with a final, “I love you guys and my love is real,” leaving his message of love in the air all night.
- Your Song (Elton John cover)
- Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis cover)
- Inner City Blues
- Let’s Think About Living (Bob Luhman cover)
- This In Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
- You’d Like to Admit it
- Rich Folk Hoax
- Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyles
- I Wonder
- Somebody To Love (The Great Society cover)
- Forget It
- Light My Fire (The Doors cover)
- Street Boy
Photos by Mauricio Alvarado