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Stew & The Negro Problem at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 14th, 2010

Last night we headed down to the Museum of Contemporary Art for a concert by Stew and The Negro Problem. Stew is best known for his recent Broadway musical, “Passing Strange,” but I’ve been a fan for more than a decade, ever since I bought a copy of the album Joys and Concerns (1999) after reading a rave review in the L.A. Weekly. I’ve followed his career closely since then, but this was the first time I’d seen him and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald perform live.

It was a terrific, witty show — but also unexpectedly somber. The light and lush tone that characterizes Stew’s studio recordings gave way in concert to a darker, jazzier sound. The show opened with “Bleed,” with Stew fingering a plastic toy horn that he would pick up again from time to time throughout the evening. This was followed by a heavily reworked version of “Re-Hab.” The set included a few new songs — “Speed,” “Curse,” and one about young upscale Brooklyn mothers and their aggressive stroller-pushing habits. They also played many older songs, including “Gary Come Home” (the tune Stew wrote for an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, albeit with a few choice new lyrics), “Bong Song,” “Black Men Ski,” “Ken” (a comic take on the sexual preferences of Barbie’s male companion: “My name’s Ken/and I like men”) and “Kingdom of Drink.” Stew apologized for performing just one number from “Passing Strange,” (“We Just Had Sex”), promising he would do more songs from that show on his next visit to town. He hinted about ongoing negotiations from an upcoming residency here in Chicago.

The main set closed with “Peter Jennings” in a jazzed-up epic version that somehow morphed midway through into a tribute to John Coltrane. For the encore, they did a marvelous version of “The Naked Dutch Painter,” one of Stew’s best compositions. All through the evening, Stew held up his legendary stage patter–very funny riffs on how cold it is in Chicago, on how great it was to having washing machines in their backstage dressing room, on what it was like to be the sole black man at an upscale resort in Aspen.

Stew was in fine voice all night, repeatedly hitting even very high falsetto notes. He showed off some slick guitar work in the last few numbers, as well. Earlier in the evening, he’d done what he later joked was his museum performance piece: playing his guitar by setting it upright in its stand and throwing coins against the strings.

After the show Stew and Heidi came out into the lobby to mingle with the audience. We were able to chat briefly with them. I got to thank them for the special Valentine’s Day song they recorded for my wife in 2006 (Stew offered to make personalized songs as special Valentine’s Day gifts that year, and I took him up on it: by far the best VD gift I’ve ever managed to come up with). Heidi said that they’d met a few of the other Valentine’s Day couples from that year during the current tour.

A new album is due early next year, and they continue to develop new theatrical projects. I’ve written here before that I think Stew is a living national treasure. It was a pleasure to find him that he is also approachable and down-to-earth in person.

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