Friday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Annette Strauss Square Amphitheater, two things were pristinely clear: the gorgeous night sky above the blanketed crowd of BYOB-ers, and that the Search for Sugarman is now a full-blown phenomenon of followers who've found their guy in Rodriguez.
The crowded, but comfortable, lawn of the sold-out venue was dominated by folks in 50-plus age range, yet the 40-and below folks began to appear as the sun dropped and the music began. Thanks to some packed-house positivity and the generally beautiful surroundings of ATTPAC, this show had the feel of a grand-scale event. The pre-show conversation among many focused on the 70 year-old Rodriguez's story, the Oscar-winning documentary and how unique it is that, at this point, he's touring and finally benefitting from his stunning records of over 40 years ago. By the time the folk-rocking opener, Jenny O, left the stage at 8:35pm, anticipation for the headliner's entrance was palpable.
At 9:00 p.m. sharp, under a dark, cloudless sky, Rodriguez walked onto the stage, following the three-piece backing band, with a woman on each side of him that seemed to be guiding him by his arms towards the microphone. The moment he reached center-stage to absolutely thunderous applause from the already-adoring audience, he owned Dallas. Opening with a jammy, bluesy take on "Climb Up On My Music," form his 1971 record, Coming From Reality, the show was officially rolling and a wonderful evening could've been complete at that point, almost.
It's not that the remainder of his set was anything short of fun, or that he didn't prove to be an entertaining fellow that seemed to be genuinely thankful for the "I Love You, Rodriguez!" shouts he received repeatedly from the crowd. Hs voice was smooth - recalling a sarcastic, nasally young Bob Dylan -- but it lacked the colorful emotion that pops up in his recordings, often punching soul in to match the funky, R&B arrangements of the original versions. Obviously, given the events of the past 40 years, it's understandable that he's a bit frail these days. While his songs aren't in need of operatic theatrics, by any means, the vocals of the night, with only an exception or two, would prove to be smoothly monotonous.
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A trend that would prove to be a buzzkill, even if slightly so, was the in-between song pow-wow that took place between basically every tune. Using different backing bands along this tour instead of one group that tours and plays with him night after night, aided the predictable nature the show began to take on. But again, to be predictable in this way isn't a bad thing really. Have you been to a Willie Nelson show lately? The LoneStar icon basically sing-talks his way through most shows, but we go because we want to see Willie, not because we expect the most amazing vocalist to take over the stage and blow our ears away. We're there for an experience, not merely for a golden-throated crooner. Sure, when he sang "Can't Get Away," and then his covers of B.B. King's "Lucille" and "Blue Suede Shoes," Rodriguez audibly strained to hit the highest notes, but these three songs, specifically, provided bursts of energy that mixed up the folkier material, such as "I Wonder" and "The Establishment Blues." The latter of those stacked-up nicely with its up-tempo, hip-hop flavored recorded counterpart. And the bass-groove that was missing much of the night made a welcome appearance during "I Think of You."
When the recognizable initial notes to "Sugarman" floated from the stage in the middle of the set, the crowd seemed to get what they had come for. Thanks to the title of the documentary and the song's prominence in the film, this is Rodriguez's signature song at this point. The electric guitar and bass worked in-tandem to majestic effect and produced a psychedelic swirl around Sixto's voice. His cover of "Sea of Heartbreak" also had a spritely charisma, while "Street Boy," brought things back into an easy-listening, chill-out zone.
As the show rolled towards its end, the night's event indeed was more than a concert, as the good vibes from before the show had hinted. Everything was pleasant and the artist that was searched for by generations of people was right in-front of us, putting on a show. At 70, Rodriguez is living a dream he had given up on decades ago and on Friday night in Dallas, regardless of anything else, he charmed the audience of thousands by surviving, playing and simply saying "I Love You Back."