Stew And The Negro Problem At Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook,” Wednesday, February 7th, 2018, Reviewed
Mark Stewart (aka Stew) has that rare ability to be simultaneously unctuous and obnoxious, the motor mouthed black rocker’s public fellatio of American Songbook and Spike Lee, sitting front and center , was only slightly less offensive than his cool breeze self-regard that infected the 90 minute performance at the Appel Room Wednesday night.
The man will not shut up.
Stew and Heidi Rodewald are the former couple who reinvented the rock opera as concert performance and got it as far Broadway with “Passing Strange”. I am not a believer at all but True Groove owner, Tomas Doncker, who accompanied me Wednesday night, is one. My problem with the music is two fold:
1 – The lyrics exist in a netherworld of exposition and hook repetition
2 – The songs go on and on and on.
So between Stew’s inability to say in five words a thought he can expand upon for fifty, his bizarre self-regard, and the lack of an edit to cut his songs from ten minutes to three and a half, he is, what’s that word, boring.
I went to see Stew and Heidi’s last musical at the Public, “The Total Bent” and it was terrible. I came to “Stew And The Negro Problem” with lowered expectations, and my lowered expectations were met for the first hour, long winded bad songs with so much self-regard Stew might as well be a rapper. But then it took off. A song fcalled “Getting Tired Of Dick” (actually I don’t know what it’s called and you can’t buy it anywhere) from the Lincoln Center commissioned 2015 Wagner celebration, “Wagner, Max! Wagner!” has a haunting trumpet and Heidi sharing verse for verse with Stew on what manages to be a trick that U2 used to pull off all the time, quiet songs that sound like massive orchestral beckoning while barely raising itself louder -it’s a trick of the cymbals that shatter down. Next, same show, “Brother Wagner,” a talky song that makes an important point, especially in 2018, about not mistaking the artist for the art. The final song of the trio is from “The Mosquito Net,” a dystopian New York rock opera about what would happen if Trump became president from back in the good old days when we were pretty sure Hillary was winning. Performed in what seemed like atoning prescience the day after the election, “One Entertaining, Socially Irresponsible, Transgression After Another” is the best song of the night and it lives up to its name, a hard rocking hook laded (and what a hook: the title as a singalong with the voices going higher on “other”) very amusing joke on us.
If those three songs were highlights, what to make of the rest of the show? It was a difficult set because nobody knew the songs, I skipped out on the last song of the evening (Spike Lee: “Where are you going?”), but other than that I didn’t know any of it at all, and since Stew and Heidi do have songs in their catalog people would recognize (and I bet some people knew their Sponge Bill song, though it went over my head), why not play a few? The first song, “Maybe There’s Black People In Fort Green,” is the giveaway, if you like it you should be safe, it irritated the fuck outta me. I’m not saying it wasn’t clever, I’m saying it isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, I am saying the entire Brooklyn concept got beaten out by the times (not unlike the way Lou Reed’s New York is dated), and I am saying there is something about Stew as MC that gets on my tits. Later “The Bohos Have Become The Bohomeowners” isn’t as good as its pun, though almost as self-satisfied, but it is a GREAT pun, so… Yet, stuff like “oh we just remembered we needed trumpet player yesterday huh huh,” sounds as fake as a lot of his conversation (the iffy Spike Lee sitcom “She’s Got To Have It” comes in for a rave. Here is how it goes with Spike: “She’s Got To Have It” (the movie), “Do The Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and “He’s Got Game” and then everything else, especially that shitty Malcolm X movie, is suspect). The entire this is the way we are, the shouting out for the drummer to return, the talking over each other, all of it is annoying. Stew is so pleased with himself he won’t calm himself, and really, I just can’t hear it as being that great, I mean a black man rocks? Is that it? What about Chuck Berry? Little Richard…? Hey even Hootie Darius? That laxness might be part of the laid back LA vibe but it comes across, much like his music, as needing tightening. Cut, trim, think, stop being so cool, burn your Wikipedia. I swear I don’t get what was going on in Stew’s mind here, it seemed like a random collection of songs plus four from the Wagner as blues man rock opera. It seemed neither indicative nor not indicative of his catalog, it just kinda floated on long, long, long songs.
I see what Doncker respects so much about Stew, and I like him more than I did when I got in, but he rates himself too highly and he won’t shut up. How can I man so laid back be so uptight?