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Sweet tale of singer who didn't know his fame

It's not by coincidence that the Irish Film Institute's annual documentary festival goes under the banner 'Stranger Than Fiction'. Earlier this year, a film was shown which had some of the more sceptical movie reviewers wondering whether, in fact, the story was an elaborately constructed hoax.

Searching for Sugar Man spun the bizarre yarn of a Detroit-born singer-songwriter called Rodriguez who, we were informed, had released two albums in the early Seventies. Although receiving little or no attention in his homeland, Cold Feet and its follow-up Coming from Reality somehow found their way to South Africa where they became hugely popular.

The mystique around the music's creator extended to people assuming that he was dead -- some of the more fanciful theories involved Rodriguez killing himself onstage -- when in fact he'd returned to Detroit, become involved in the construction industry and active in local politics.

The film set about discovering Rodriguez's situation and bringing him to tour in South Africa, where he was a superstar, unbeknownst to himself, in 1998. It's an incredible story, even if it did skimp on the facts somewhat. Far from disappearing off the face of the earth in 1971, Rodriguez had been very popular in Australia and New Zealand, but then that wouldn't have suited the film-makers' narrative, now would it?

What does still stand up is the music itself. Sounding very much of its time, Rodriguez's oeuvre is a folk-soul hybrid which recalls Dylan, Donovan, Bill Withers and Van Morrison.


His signature track Sugar Man is a distillation of all these elements, with tastefully deployed strings and woodwind decorating a poetic take on the old trope of waiting for the man. It's an evocative, inspiring piece of music.

Rodriguez, of course, never made a penny from his South African sales in the Seventies and Eighties. However, he is back touring in support of the documentary and soundtrack album.

Rodriguez plays Vicar Street on Tuesday.

>george byrne