LITA Celebrated Ten Years of Unearthing the Analog at the Showbox
People like a mystery. To interlock the facts they do know with the possibilities that probably aren’t and in the mind’s eye lend a sense of romance or needed context to the unknown deepening the mystery. Light in the Attic’s reissue of Detroit’s Rodriguez only two records from 1971 and 1973, records that were ignored in their time and forgotten all together by America for decades, brings to light the mystery that will inevitably occur to the mind of a listener now nearly forty years later: How was such a talent unheralded and forgotten so quickly?
As told in this year’s documentary Searching for Sugarman in the intervening years Sixto Rodriguez wasn’t completely forgotten. Via various bootlegs and unauthorized reissues, apartheid-era South Africa found a voice of resistance through Rodriguez’s music and his wax was stacked in every home next to the Stones and other international powerhouses. Rodriguez was different than a Mick or a Marvin Gaye in that he was a ghost as his music spread to fuel a thought revolution. So his legend grew, and the rumors of his demise and disappearance consequently grew to outlandish proportions: Suicide on stage via a self-immolation or a gun depending on who you asked. Searching for Sugarman follows the story of a group of South Africans tracking the not-actually-dead Rodriguez down and bringing him the recognition he deserved in their country long after he’d given up hope of a career in music.
Unmentioned in the documentary though is the efforts of Seattle label Light in the Attic to bring Rodriguez’s music (along with many others artists) the notability it deserved in the U.S. over the last few years. For the past decade whilst the rest of us were metaphorically digging through the ephemeral bits of the Internet LITA’s been in fact digging through storerooms and boxes in search of obscure music that needed be heard more widely. Along with reissues of Rodriguez’s two records, they’ve used the local history contained in the Kearney Barton’s vast recording archives to build the Wheedle’s Groove set of compilations, they’ve reprinted the canon of virtual unknowns like Karen Dalton and Michael Chapman to cheers, and most recently they unearthed an unusually accomplished bedroom band made up of the Emerson brothers from late-70′s Eastern Washington who’s music was barely heard outside of their small town. The amassed catalog of reissues and compilations of over one hundred titles from around the world (with some still only available on vinyl) is amounting to an important piece of still breathing musical history.
Friday at the Showbox at the Market was the second of two 10 year anniversary shows the label put on over the last month, and Rodriguez’s rare appearance in the headlining slot dressed all in black and speaking in riddle dispelled nothing of his own mystery and did nothing to seize a 60 minutes moment. At point point he quipped with a grin, “Wanna know life’s biggest mystery? When it ends.” This sort of wry fatalistic humor certainly exists in Rodriguez’s songs, but also seems balanced by a hope for humanity that shined through to the South Africans. Now after 40 years in the shadow of unfinished musical business a blunt matter-of-factness about what he’s learned of humanity pervades the pragmatic street wisdom delivered between songs. Hit albums or not, somehow I think Rodriguez will always be poetically telling it like it is.
In contrast to Rodriguez, now three decades after-the-fact for Donnie and Joe Emerson the innocence of their parent-funded record has yet to be lost. In our heads the notion of singing the songs of our youth usually comes with a wry wink to our younger selves, yet somehow nothing felt ironic about these middle-aged brothers suddenly resurrecting a childhood dream, even if only for this one night. With their original jumpsuits reverently on display behind them the Emersons (and band) from Fruitland, Washington did everything they could to steal the show, their first in 32 years. With Joe in back on Drums, Donnie Emerson was at turns emotional and full on grinning for what was also their teenage band’s first Seattle outing. Obviously having the most fun in the room of anyone, Donnie really wanted to work these songs out while he had the spotlight and was going all in on his band-leader role coaxing his players to get as funky as a Fruitlander can get. Though the kids these days might not find it cool to be so obviously excited, that kind of display of joy seeps out into the audience and wins them over. It sure won me.
[Raises a glass.] Here’s to hoping for another successful ten years of Light in the Attic in their quest to keep our ears informed.