This past weekend I crossed off two more artists off my concert bucket list. On Friday night, my roommate Christopher Kain and I went to see Rodriguez perform at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. Twenty-four hours later, I flew solo to Scullers Jazz Club to see Ramsey Lewis.
If you have not seen the Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man directed by Malik Bendjelloul or the 60 Minutes segment promoting the film, here is brief history of Sixto Rodriguez. Born in Detroit to Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez recorded two albums for Sussex Records in the early 1970s — Cold Fact and Coming from Reality both of which went nowhere. Sussex subsequently dropped Rodriguez from their label and Rodriguez dropped out of the music business, toiling as a day laborer. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his records somehow made their way to South Africa where they outsold the Rolling Stones. Yet South Africans came to believe that Rodriguez was dead having committed suicide on stage by setting himself on fire. That is until two of his South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, set up a website in the late 1990s to find out what really happened to Rodriguez. It wasn’t long before Segerman and Strydom found Rodriguez living in Detroit and invited him to play in South Africa, where he played six sold out shows.
The success of Searching for Sugar Man would finally gain Rodriguez an audience in this country and around the world. At 71, Rodriguez is an overnight sensation forty years in the making and now performs in sold out concerts all over the world. With every passing tour, the venues get larger. Where the Boston area is concerned, Rodriguez has gone from performing at Johnny D’s to the Somerville Theatre and now the Orpheum.
A few words about the Orpheum are in order. It looks like an old adult movie theater with seats which appear not to been reupholstered since Rodriguez’s albums were released. The painted murals are almost completely faded. It is screaming for a renovation. This is a shame because the Orpheum is one of the oldest theatres in the country and deserves to be restored to its original grandeur.
The evening began with a set by folk singer Cory Becker. His performance was met with a mixed reaction. While some clapped along with him others preferred to talk during his performance. I was concerned that this chatter might occur during Rodriguez’s performance. Fortunately these fears would not be realized.
Rodriguez had to be assisted onstage by one of his daughters due to his failing eyesight. But once he sat down and put on his hat, Rodriguez’s vision was loud and clear. A majority of his set came from Cold Fact including “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your Mind,” “I Wonder,” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues.” Two of the four songs Rodriguez played from Coming from Reality (“Can’t Get Away” and “Street Boy” were not on the album when it was originally released).
I wanted to hear him play “Sandrevan Lullaby/Lifestyles,” but that would have required a full string section. Rodriguez was only backed up by your basic lead guitar, bass, and drums. But this guitar, bass, and drums came in handy for several pieces of 1950s rock that Rodriguez included in the set — “Lucille” by Little Richard, “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, and “I Only Have Eyes for You” by The Flamingoes. The latter song was played in response to a persistent female audience member who kept professing her love for him in between songs. At one point, Rodriguez quipped to her, “I know it’s the drinks, but I love you too.”
Another audience member queried as to when Rodriguez would be putting out new music. He did not reply. Perhaps he was put off by the question. But when most musicians from the 1960s and 1970s perform their new material that’s when audience members leave to go to the bathroom. I’ve even seen it happen with Paul McCartney. The fact that people are interested in hearing a 71-year old man perform new material puts Rodriguez in an enviable position.
Rodriguez largely kept the banter to a minimum although he did speak in slogans such as “Men must stop violence against women,” and “Power to the people.” But Rodriguez mostly let his music do the talking for him and this kept the audience more than happy. It took more than 40 years for Rodriguez to get where he is in the music business, and he is enjoying every minute of it and so are his growing audiences.
My first exposure to jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis came in the early 1980s when my Dad bought an old eight-track tape of his 1976 album Salongo. That album showed Lewis at his funkiest with songs like “Aufu Oodo” and at his most tender with songs like “Nicole.” Lewis’s ability to play both up tempo and mellow explains why he has been recording albums since the Eisenhower Administration and has become an elder statesman of American jazz. Of course, it hasn’t hurt that Lewis was among the first jazz musicians to cover rock ’n’ roll music. Lewis turns 79 later this month, but could easily pass for twenty years younger. He is sharp as a tack, witty, and possesses a resonant speaking voice that has served him well when he was hosting a jazz radio program in his native Chicago as well as hosting a PBS series on the history of American jazz a few years ago. Lewis was right at home at Scullers, a cozy venue located inside the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel that overlooks the Charles River. Over the years, I have seen jazz legends such as Chuck Mangione, Mose Allison, and harmonica virtuoso Jean “Toots” Thielemans perform there.
On this particular evening, Lewis was leading a quintet. They began by performing “Tequila Mockingbird” after which Lewis quipped, “It’s not a drink, it’s not a bird. I don’t know what it is.” Lewis gave space to his sidemen to shine, as he did with Charles Hughes drum solo on “Clouds,” a sped-up version of “Clouds in Reverie.” In fact, when Lewis and the rest of the band went to the bar to get a drink, it left Hughes on stage alone and quite literally made it a solo. At other times, Lewis would watch intently with his legs crossed as if he were a teacher observing his prized pupils, as he did with bassist Joshua Ramos during his extended solo.
Another highlight of the show was “Close Your Eyes & Remember,” which was written by Lewis’s late producer Charles Stepney (and later recorded by the late Minnie Ripperton). No Ramsey Lewis concert would be complete without a performance of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” with a little bit of The Drifters’ “On Broadway” thrown in. It was this song which in 1965 landed Lewis on the pop charts. Lewis would end the show with an encore performance of his Earth, Wind & Fire collaboration “Sun Goddess” complete with “way-os” supplied by the audience at his request. As with Rodriguez the night before, Ramsey Lewis’s audience left happier then when it had arrived.
Although Rodriguez and Ramsey Lewis perform in different musical genres they both have vitality in common when performing on stage. It is the kind of vitality that people ought not to miss should either of them plan to pay a visit your town.