I first heard about Stew and The Negro Problem years ago when I was reading an interview with Adam Duritz and he was raving about the band. I am a huge Counting Crows fan and had a lot of respect for Duritz as well as his musical tastes, so off I was to the CD store…
Many years, downloads and albums later, here I am. I have missed a few local live shows at places like The Echoplex (Aaaggghhh!!!) and most frustratingly did not get to see his Tony Award winning turn on Broadway, the phenomenal Passing Strange. The show received seven nominations and Stew won for Best Book of a Musical.
How this show has not been done in LA is a crime… so Center Theatre Group… or The Geffen… or any theatrical producer out there… call me… I will do whatever it takes to get this done. This is an LA artist telling the story of his journey into the world and beyond. Did I mention it received seven Tony nominations???!!!
Stew & The Negro Problem – Making It
Stew has been called a “musical provocateur” who is not much concerned with awards and accolades.
Yet… “Music is something that comes easy to me,” said Stew after his Tony win, “and I’ve received numerous accolades for my songs – but to be honored for my writing means a whole hell of a lot, especially when it comes from theatre people for whom words really mean something…”
The album cover shows a nicely adorned dressing room with “Making It” on the mirror… the dream of any performer or artist on Broadway… Yet the album, in typical Stew irony, is about a relationship disintegrating right around the time of such success… and in fact, the album is mostly about a relationship NOT making it.
Stew and the fabulous Heidi Rodewald, his partner in most crimes, were together for years… Then they broke up… and Stew wrote an album about it… Two years ago they discussed the process in New York Magazine… The show version was performed at the Public Theatre in NYC! They also just opened another “lab” show there called The Total Bent.
When discussing Making It, Stew says “The music is pretty, but the words are ugly.” He is so right… His music is stunningly beautiful… breathtakingly beautiful. It always has been… but when you hear some of the lyrics, it can be jarring… or just brutally honest… at least from his perspective. You’d have to ask Heidi for her side.
He writes in two different styles… pointed, dead on, natural lyrics, like the following verses from “Curse”, which stand out immediately upon listening and were mentioned specifically in the NY Mag article.
“It’s a love and pain thang / A no one can explain thang / It’s simply complicated folks / The wee-hour excursions / The seven different versions / Of who got fucked / And who hurts the most.”
“She made her exit / When she needed to / There’s so much there / To read into / She left you / When you needed her most / And then you watched your love / Turn into a ghost.”
His other writing style is a more poetic, abstract and heightened fashion. This sometimes needs explanation or context, like when he discussed one such lyric last night at the fantastic, but way too short show at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
“I want to be a current coursing through electric staff and cum in yellow neon on your Nagel lithograph.”
He repeated the line several times, saying that we really needed it… needed to hear it… and then explained hanging outside of a lithograph shop in Westwood as a teen.
The band last night was tight and the horn arrangements were lush and gorgeous and added so much dimension. They are on the album as well, but even more fun live.
The album moves from the scathing and heartbreaking (“Pretend”, “Curse”, “Love Is A Cult”) which is the more amazing as Heidi stands next to Stew and not only has to take it BUT sing some of it, too (She discussed that last night)… to the downright funny. “Black Men Ski” being one of those songs filled with humor and wit. “Speed” is another one that sneaks up on you, as Stew sings longingly and lovingly about one of his previous drugs of choice… He has many drug songs, by the way, and this one is funny, but also a bit of a battle. I will admit that I am not much of a drug person, so perhaps the true insight is missed on me, but one hopes that this is a reflection on the past and the realization that being clean is always better .
“Oh, but as for productivity there are better things than Meth. Nothing gets you going more than good old fear of death.”
Their voices are both beautiful and blend so well together, another irony and part of what makes their dynamic, relationship and partnership all the more raw and fascinating to watch and listen to. This album is amazing.
While Passing Strange pushed he and Heidi into the spotlight more, they still seem to be a “cult” band, which is great for us in the know… but they deserve a much larger and wider audience base. Stew’s theatricality and deeply connected performance made the live show last night so powerful… and Heidi is always easy going, impassioned elegance… I just wished they played more than the 90 minutes UCLA seemed to dictate.
And I’m still waiting for you to e-mail me back, Stew! Seriously.