BETH J. HARPAZ
NEW YORK (AP) -- Sixto Diaz Rodriguez can't hit the high notes like he used to, but that didn't matter to his fans.
The 70-year-old singer made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man" performed Sunday night to a worshipful crowd at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre.
The folk-rocker was at his best performing his own songs, like "I Wonder," with the catchy line, "I wonder how many times you had sex," and a slightly jazzy version of his beautiful, mournful ballad "I Think of You."
But the set list of 21 songs also included seven covers, with several American standards that his fading upper register cannot quite manage, like Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things." His "Blue Suede Shoes" was uninspired: He's no Elvis, and while the Rolling Stones have proved that age is no impediment to rocking out, Rodriguez is no Mick Jagger.
None of that mattered to his fans -- at least the ones who stayed until the end, since a small but noticeable trickle left well before the 90-minute show ended.
"It's more than a musical event," said fan Rick Panero, who attended with his mother and brother. Denise O'Bleness agreed, saying, "He stuck with it. His dream came true." Jody Rosenberg, who grew up in South Africa, also liked the show, saying she'd "tempered" her expectations after hearing from others that his voice wasn't what it once was. A 20-something in the lobby simply gushed, "Awesome!"
Rodriguez, who suffers from glaucoma, was led on and off the stage. He was dressed head to toe in black and wore dark glasses. Whether the hat he pulled low over his face protects his eyes from stage lights or merely adds to his aura of mystery and eccentricity is anybody's guess.
"Searching for Sugar Man" tells the story of how Rodriguez disappeared from public life after making two albums in the early 1970s. Unbeknownst to him, his records developed a cult following in South Africa during the apartheid era, when boycotts cut the country off culturally from the rest of the world. His fans came to believe he'd committed suicide, but the end of apartheid and the advent of the Internet enabled them to find him and bring him to South Africa for a triumphant tour. The movie's Oscar win for best documentary has led to yet another career rebirth as Americans now discover the songs he wrote more than four decades ago. Rodriguez will also perform at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 9. Highlights of Sunday's show included several of his songs that do not appear in the movie, like "Rich Folks Hoax."
The film depicts Rodriguez as an eccentric fellow whose early career was marred in part by performances where he played with his back to the audience. In interviews, he comes across as shy and uncomfortable, and despite his fans' attempts to engage him with shout outs at Sunday's show, he maintained the curtain on his emotions.
His best cover of the night, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" performed as an encore, asks: "How does it feel, to be on your own ... a complete unknown?" Unspoken was the obvious question on everyone's mind: "How does it feel to find fame four decades later?" Rodriguez never hinted at an answer, instead ending the show with an odd combination of slogans: "Drive safely, and power to the people."
His band -- a drummer, two guitarists and two horns -- livened up rock numbers without drowning out his voice and stepped back to let him showcase his still beautifully fluid guitar work. Before one encore, the drummer gestured to the audience to up its applause, and fans obliged, turning polite clapping into a roar.
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