Showbox at the Market
Friday, Oct. 12th
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It must be a surreal experience to be plucked from thirty years of obscurity, long after giving up on the dream of a music career, to play a sold-out concert to a room of adoring fans. That was the case for two of the acts playing Light in the Attic's ten-year anniversary party Friday at the Showbox. For Rodriguez, the rediscovery and revival of his music is old news. But to Donnie and Joe Emerson, who played their first show in 32 years that night, it was clearly all very new.
The brothers from Fruitland (a small farming town two hours west of Spokane) recorded their only album, Dreamin' Wild, as teenagers in 1979. Despite its heartfelt take on the smooth radio rock popular at the time, the record went nowhere. Joe, the elder brother, went to work in the family's logging business, while singer Donnie moved to Spokane and pursued a largely unsuccessful music career that nearly cost the family their livelihood (for the full Emerson family story, check out this recent profile in The New York Times).
Friday night, they turned back the clock, playing rearranged versions of their innocent, hazy songs on a stage draped with the over-the-top white leisure suits they wore as teens on their album cover. Both brothers seemed ecstatic to be playing their first Seattle show, particularly Donnie (who now goes by Don), who said he normally doesn't wear glasses, but recently got a pair so he could see the audience. "I wish you guys could be with us in Fruitland," he said sincerely. "We would have so much fun." Understandably, he craved interaction and response from the audience, asking repeatedly for the crowd to sing along and energetically interacting with his band, which consisted of a percussionist, bassist, and keyboard player in addition to his brother on drums. "I bet you didn't think I would be so hyper," he said.
If the brothers Emerson were slightly manic, Rodriguez brought a different sort of energy. The crowd, obviously there to see him perform the lost classics from his two albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, hung on his every word and strum. Like the Emersons, Rodriguez went from obscurity to playing stadiums of a scale much, much larger than a sold-out Showbox. We've covered his story extensively, so I won't dwell on it here. If you haven't, go see the movie Searching for Sugarman, which eloquently explains it all.
In the film, his delayed success never seemed to ruffle him, and at 70, he easily slid into the role of elder statesman, the Bob Dylan who never was. But even after his rediscovery and with an entire movie devoted to him, he remains a mystery. Led on stage by the eccentrically-coiffed Wymond Miles, guitarist of Bay-Area garage band Fresh & Onlys (whose members supported Rodriguez at this show), Rodriguez seemed frail, hiding behind a hat and sunglasses. But once he got his guitar in hand, he was the wily spirit who paired a social agenda with songs that painted portraits of drug dealers and other characters from the streets of his hometown, Detroit. (Of the "Sugarman" from where he got his nickname, he said "That's a descriptive song, not a prescriptive one.")
Full of one-liners and zingers, he spoke almost entirely in jokes, doling out life advice while holding a red mug of steaming tea and causing waves of laughter to spread through the audience. The set was packed with hits-that-never-were from both albums, including knockout versions of "I Wonder" and "Crucify Your Mind," with Tim Cohen's mellotron filling in for horns and strings. Over the hour-and-a-half he was on stage, he snuck in covers of "Fever" and the Cole Porter classic "Just One of Those Things." Closing with "Forget It," (whose lyrics run "Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that's said, forget it,") it seemed unlikely he would return for an encore. But he came back for an electric version of "Blue Suede Shoes," reminding a bit of James Brown being led limping offstage, only to return triumphantly.
More than just good music, Light in the Attic specializes in acts with a unique story. Friday's concert was a rare chance to see some of their roster in a live setting, and the quality of their curation shone. Talents like Rodriguez stand on their own, but without LITA's support, we may never have heard him. Here's to ten more years of discovering great music.