Rodriguez’s performance was relaxed and quietly confident. He opened the show with “(You Give Me) Fever,” performed with some nifty strumming on his nylon-string guitar. Much of the rest of his set consisted of switching between his own songs and covers of traditional rock songs (“Blue Suede Shows”) and ballads (“It’s Just One of Those Things” and “I’ve Only Got Eyes for You”). He performed these covers with a lot of enthusiasm and remarked that these songs meant a lot to him. His own songs—“Crucify Your Mind,” “Establishment Blues,” “Sugarman,” “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues,” and others that I could not identify but the audience seemed to know—felt different, as stripped away from the elaborate arrangements on Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). The ethereal imagery and turns-of-phrase of his own songs contrasted strikingly with the more plain-spoken oldies that he enjoyed so much.
The overall feel that Rodriguez exuded in his performance was of a man who was simply happy to be there. Pretensions were limited, and so was stagecraft. He stood and smiled at us. He retuned the guitar after almost every song, turning down the volume to pick and strum the next song just for himself, making sure he knew what he was doing before turning the volume back up to play for the rest of us. He told corny jokes and stories—about Mickey and Minnie Mouse going to marriage counseling, about how to keep successful relationships together, about the unfortunate city of Detroit, about his own luck at getting to play music for a living at his late age—that his audience, me included, ate up and applauded. He mentioned his performance on David Letterman, pointing out that the full arrangement of “Crucify Your Mind” would have sounded even better if he had not been playing at all. The self-deprecation might have sounded self-serving from another performer, but knowing what we all know about the decades he spent away from professional music, it was a poignant reminder of how challenging his life has been. I sense that that is what a lot of his current audience actually hears. Rodriguez is a survivor, a soulful, big-hearted professional who for too long was denied the vessel best suited for his self-expression and managed against the odds to resume his calling. His songs are good, but they pale in comparison to the example set by his life.