4.21.11 THE NEGRO PROBLEM
This article originally appeared in the 4.21.11 issue of Metroland. Pic stolen from Bryan Thomas' FB page and it must have been taken by Matt Mac Haffie. And do click on the Metroland hyperlink up there.
STEW AND THE NEGRO PROBLEM
Helsinki on the Hudson
April 15, 2011
“You know how when you’re black and you’re in Aspen?” Thus started a typical rambling and hysterical soliloquy by Stew. His long-running “band”, The Negro Problem, consisted this night of just his long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald, although he hinted at bringing an 11-piece band back to Helsinki next time up. But the two-person line-up was better than fine. It was casual, nimble, and it was all Stew all the time.
The Aspen set-up led to the song Black Men Ski, with Stew singing the last verse with a ski mask pulled over his face. The effect was typical for the evening: revealing, absurd, bittersweet, biting, and in the context of Stew’s world, oh so funny.
Like their rangy Tony-award winning play Passing Strange, racial issues never far from the surface but were only one of numerous targets of Stew and the NP’s skewed tunes: he took on liquor (while simultaneously enjoying several Guinness Stouts), drugs, Brooklyn hipster moms in bars with strollers ( the side-splitting “Sexy Brooklyn Mommy”), and sexual stereotyping (in what he called “the 47th or 48th song about gay Ken dolls”, starting with the lyric “My name is Ken. I like men” and blossoming into an opus-like extravaganza about a gay Ken rebellion).
At some point, I stopped laughing long enough to remember I was reviewing the show. I wrote down “omnipotent black Buddha with perfect comedic timing.”
Rodewalds’s presence grew through the evening, revealing more bit by bit, to the point where she took a monologue or two and sang a couple; but throughout she called the songs, drove the bus, was the glue on bass and keys. Fascinating dynamic up there.
Of one mind and relentlessly musical.
They did a couple songs from “the play” and made a big deal of an obligatory run-through of “Gary, Please Come Home” a song they wrote for Spongebob. “When I die and when Heidi dies people won’t mention Passing Strange or any of the great albums we made. You know you’re fucked up when the first mention is of a song you wrote about a fucking snail that isn’t even real.”
They call it “Afro-baroque cabaret”. That’s pretty good. Randy Newman occurred to me once or twice. The refreshingly multi-racial crowd was heavy on laughter but light in number, and we’ll chalk this up the fact that this was a late booking, announced little more than two weeks out. How many Tony awards and Spike Lee movies do you need to pack a club? The Helsinki folks didn’t seem phased. Stew shall return, maybe with the big band. Watch out.