Being able to finish a film with an iPhone app was the MacGyver move that Malik Bendjelloul had to pull in order to finish his Oscar-winning project. Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary film about Sixto Rodriguez. The Detroit-born psychedelic folk singer has enjoyed a recent revival in popularity thanks to the film. While some believe that the documentary film does not tell the whole truth, I believe Searching for Sugar Man was a great showcase for his music, which is what ultimately brought me to The Depot on a Tuesday night.
While sharing stories over lentil soup before the concert, my friend Volkswagen Frank told me that Malik Bendjelloul recently died in Sweden. The fact that he achieved the highest accolade in his business and died a little over a year later is something that could be a movie in itself. As we left Frank’s house, I wondered if Rodriguez would say anything on the death of the filmmaker that brought him another round of success.
As Volkswagen Frank and I walked up to the venue, we noticed the crowd. It seemed as though we would be enjoying a show that was in large part populated by people old enough to be our parents. We did not feel even a slight bit out of place—we love older ladies and, for the most part, they love us.
Rodriguez had no openers on Tuesday night, which forced us to get there when the doors opened. Joking, moonwalking and eating the bar food made an hour and a half pass pretty damn fast. Then it happened—everything went black, except for the stage lights. Rodriguez came out with his band. He is 71 years old and slowly walked toward the microphone while holding his bandmates’ hands. Rodriguez has glaucoma, which is why he needs some help getting around. Seeing him in this state made me wonder if he will be able to make it through a whole show. As the music started, all of these worries went away as he instantly transformed into a 25-year-old rock star in his prime. The legend was dressed all in black, wearing his funeral best, sunglasses and his signature hat that makes him look as though he’s constantly in the shadows.
Rodriguez opened with songs “Only Good for Conversation” and “This is Not a Song, it’s an Outburst.” These songs, from his first album, Cold Fact, instantly took me back to the movie that brought me here. These songs are over 30 years old and stand the test of time—his protest songs are timeless and the struggle in the street he describes is almost tangible. He transitioned into the song “I Wonder”—this song has become one of his more famous, with lyrics about wondering how promiscuous a lover has been. As the song ends, without missing a beat, Rodriguez says, “I wonder, but I really don’t want to know.”
After taking a drink from a Styrofoam cup, Rodriguez went straight into “Crucify Your Mind” and “Inner City Blues” These songs were a build up for his most recognizable song, “Sugar Man”—which is a tale of a relationship with a drug dealer. “That song is supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive,” he mentioned once the song ended. “Be smart, don’t start,” he adds during his banter between songs. He ended his set with “Street Boy,” and finally with “Forget it.” Rodriguez tried to end his set by yelling, “Power to the People!” before walking off the stage.
Though the set was over, the crowd decided—almost telepathically—that no one was leaving before we got an encore. Salt Lake hadn’t had enough of this Detroit legend. It wasn’t Rodriguez’s bedtime yet—we wanted more. As I almost felt like giving up—a person can only yell “Encore!” for so long—he came back out wearing a black tank top and pants. I was more excited than ever. Most concerts I have attended over the years have had encores, but this one felt different. Rodriguez didn’t need to play for us, and he probably shouldn’t have, due to his health. “You’d Like to Admit it” was the first song of his encore. This song is from his 1967 EP, and describes a woman who, Rodriguez realizes, is not worth it—“When I see you again, I’ll just grin/And you’ll know why it is, ‘cause I’m glad that you’re his and not mine.” We all make connections to songs we hear in some way, and at this point, I was happy that I didn’t invite one of my ex-girlfriends to this concert.
Rodriguez finished his encore with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.” He transformed this song into something that is completely his own. I felt saddened and hopeful at the same time. The fact that we will all die, and that in the grand scheme of things—our existence probably won’t matter can either depress us or give us the initiative to live more than we ever have. Earlier in the night, I wondered if Rodriguez would make it through the concert—by the end, I realized that touring and seeing his fans is what is keeping him alive.