Music

Surreal to the Mex

Detroit Troubadour Rodriguez's Odd Folk Resurfaces

Surreal to the Mex

Courtesy of Rodriguez

Sixto Rodriguez should've been at least as big as Leonard Cohen and Phil Ochs, if not quite in the same stratosphere of pop-culture prominence as Bob Dylan—or even Donovan. Coming up in late-'60s Detroit when that city was at its zenith of dominance in soul, rock, and funk, this Mexican-American street poet should've been swept up in the record industry's Motor City mania. He even had Motown rhythm-section ringers and session guitarist Dennis Coffey playing on and producing his debut LP, the 1970 cult classic Cold Fact.

Alas, circumstances and peculiar antics—like playing with his back to a crowd full of music-biz reps—conspired to keep Rodriguez's twisted troubadourisms and skewed folk rock far below mass consciousness. After a poor-selling follow-up, 1971's Coming from Reality, Rodriguez bagged his music career and focused on local politics. While thus occupied, his records found huge audiences in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. People there—especially soldiers—embraced Rodriguez's surrealist, antiestablishment poetry, set to the sort of raw balladry and slyly psychedelic folk that moved Nixon-era bohos to their left-leaning cores.

Meantime, only the most obsessive collectors even knew of Rodriguez's oracular output. In 2002, DJ David Holmes lifted the haunting, psych-soul ballad "Sugar Man" from Cold Fact for his Come Get It I Got It mix. But Rodriguez's name didn't disseminate widely until Seattle's Light in the Attic Records reissued Fact last year.

Coming from Reality (just reissued by LITA) is a lighter record than Fact, but it contains several gems. "Climb Up on My Music" is a striking opener, an understated psychedelic talking blues—think Santana meets José Feliciano—that likens his music to a conduit to freedom. "Can't Get Away" soars blissfully into string-laden, tropical grooviness, like a collab between Jorge Ben and Rotary Connection. Lilting orchestral-pop nuggets like "I'll Slip Away," "Cause," and "Sandrevan Lullaby - Lifestyles" point Rodriguez in a fruitful new direction, although a syrupiness sometimes prevails. Sentimentality ill fits Rodriguez; he excels when spurred by bile and injustice and backed by Coffey's caustic, wah-wah-ed licks. Much better is "Heikki's Suburbia Bus Tour," a chunky counterpart to Fact's scorching "Only Good for Conversation."

Now nearing 67, Rodriguez is taking a well-deserved victory lap around Europe and North America. His Seattle show will feature a full horn section and backing from San Francisco's the Fresh & Onlys. Rodriguez finally gets his just deserts. Fact. recommended

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