Rodriguez at Schubas

Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez (full name: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez) is one of countless musicians who recorded great songs years and years ago — and then disappeared with a trace. He released just two albums: Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1972, with psychedelic folk rock reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes. Those records barely sold any copies in the U.S. and Rodriguez spent the coming years as day laborer in Detroit. Then, somehow, his records caught on in Australia. And then he became a star in South Africa. He’s still largely unknown in his home country, but that’s starting to change, now that the Light in the Attic label has reissued his albums on CD, and Friday (May 8), he came to Chicago to play in front of an enthusiastic and largely young audience at Schubas.

By now, having played to big audiences in South Africa, Rodriguez must be getting used to hearing cheers for his songs. But on Friday he still seemed like someone who’s feeling giddy at finally getting the recognition he sought four decades ago.”I’ve seen lonelier days and lonelier nights,” he said. And when the audience sang along with many of those old Rodriguez songs, the smiling singer almost seemed astonished. “Thanks for knowing the words, too,” he said. “That blows me away. Those are my lines.”

The three musicians playing with Rodriguez appeared to be learning some of the songs as they went along — Rodriguez had to show them the chords for a few songs, and the guitarist was using a cheat sheet with chords — but it sounded beautifully organic and remarkably close to the old recordings. Rodriguez’s voice is still in excellent form, and he has a distinctive way of plucking the chords on his electric-classical guitar. Highlights included his great signature song “Sugar Man,” which you can hear at The only thing lacking to keep it from being perfect were the strings and reeds heard on the original studio record. Rodriguez closed with a cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” incorporating bits of “Long Tally Sally” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

This was one of those special concerts where you get a real sense of the performer’s personality and history.

The opening act was Vampire Hands, a much younger band playing percussion-heavy rock with some psychedelic audio effects. Sort of a weird match with Rodriguez, but in a way it seemed appropriate — two different generations of musicians coming together in front of an audience that seemed to appreciate both.

Photos of Rodriguez and Vampire Hands.

Listen to the Aug. 28, 2008, story about Rodriguez on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”