Singer-songwriter Dan Rodriguez is a serviceable act of perennial promise who stands ever on the edge but ultimately doesn’t come through. He’s a largely pedestrian songwriter and capable vocalist who hits his pitches and that’s about it.
First caught R&B-ish rocker Rodriguez years ago on a Varsity Theater bill supporting headliner Alicia Wiley and thought he might someday be onto something. Promoting his debut EP Unreal, he opened that night with a fine, rousing number and closed with a fine, rousing number. In between, the music went nowhere.
I returned to the Varsity on July 22nd for the launch of the new EP, Dan Rodriguez. There was even less about which to get excited. Half a dozen songs into the set, a cut fueled by moody chords, laced with a sweet melody, beautifully rocks. Otherwise, it’s run-of-the-mill fare over which Rodriguez and band get unduly worked up, indulging self-congratulatory histrionics on instrumental breaks. At one point, things got flat-out amateurish as Rodriguez spun an inane yarn about going to the dentist as a kid—this to explain his ability to mimic a kazoo. Then, he did a song, instructing the audience to “clap real loud” if they liked the “kazoo” solo. True enough, he sounds remarkably like a kazoo—on a dinky little solo lame as a three-legged dog. For another number, he swaggered onto a soapbox, trashing scantily clad females who go clubbing downtown Minneapolis on Friday nights, denigrating them as “hos” and “skanks” (nothing like some knuckle-dragging sexism with your evening’s entertainment). It was the intro to a generic, you-heard-one-you’ve-heard-‘em-all rock number called “Downtown Girls” that has simplistic, sour-grape lyrics.
Enough being enough, I adjourned to the lobby where I could lounge, hearing everything clearly without having to watch it. Actually, the music sounds better sans narcissistic goings-on. Not that much better, though. It ain’t awful, just not all that good.
At home, I put Dan Rodriguez on the box. He does better in the studio, but still doesn’t bring the real deal. Produced by Rodriguez and Luke Fredrickson, Dan Rodriguez leans on smart arranging, lush keyboard and guitar tracks, and layered vocals to approximate immediacy. There isn’t a great deal of eyebrow-raising originality. In fact, the strongest, undeniably airplay-ready song, “We Need Love,” sounds, for all the world, like The New Congress, striking a starkly emotive turn on which Rodriguez’s vocals hit home with feeling. “Train Wreck” gives drummer Aaron Johnson a chance to mix it up, artfully working the traps. “Music of the Soul” lets keyboardist Andre Rodriguez shine executing haunting figures. On the choruses, Dan Rodriguez sings finally heartfelt, delivering the angst-rich promise for which he generally should be sued.
That said, at The Fine Line, catching Laura Moe singing with Dodd Road, who do I run into but Rodriguez? We’re at the bar and I let him know my upcoming review won’t be flattering. Doesn’t dent his fender. I suggest sitting down a for a point-counterpoint Q&A—with which he has no problem. So, next week, after he’s had time to read what I said, we’re at The Ugly Mug, talking shop.
One thing we agree on, right, you look like Freddie Prinze?
Yeah, I get that every once in awhile.
Down to brass tacks. Where’d my review get it wrong?
Wrong is such a strong word. I looked it over. You definitely had some things to say. As it should be with a critic. It was a lot of opinion. The thing is, you can go to a restaurant and get bad service. If you go to a concert, music is so subjective. You got ten different people having ten completely different experiences. I got a lot of positive feedback. People saying, “It’s one of your best shows I’ve ever seen.” To have one person say what you said, what they thought, I can’t say you’re wrong. That’s your opinion, the experience you had. Whatever it is. Every single person had a different experience.
Okay. One song, you said, you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all. There’s nuances I find interesting, that other people will find interesting.
For sure. The crowd was with you.
It’s taking something that’s gonna be, I guess, commercially acceptable—and putting your own art in there, your message. Your style.
How do you write? Words first? Chords?
It’s not the same for every single song. Most of the time I end up writing and singing, playing and singing at the same time. A lot of times, after that, I’ll go back and edit lyrics. For me, I’m a musician by feel. [How] I feel the music. A lot of my stuff’s been really based on relationships.
How does success feel, having slugged it out in the trenches, arriving as a headliner?
It [feels] great. Makes me feel confident. When people show up to a show, I’m not doing this for no reason. Without purpose.
Dan Rodriguez, Aug. 26, is at Aster Café on a double bill with Annie Fitzgerald. 125 Main St. SE in Minneapolis. Cover $8. 9 p.m.