Eclectic Stew & the Negro Problem, playing again tonight and Saturday, a hit in offbeat UMS show
Think about it. When was the last time you were offered earplugs at a University Musical Society event?
There didn’t seem to be many takers Thursday night, and as it turned out, aural protection wasn’t really needed for the first of four shows by Stew & the Negro Problem, a five-member jazz/R&B/rock/cabaret ensemble appearing at an unusual venue for UMS — the former Leopold Bros. brewpub on South Main Street.
Clearly this was not standard fare for UMS, better known for offering classical music on campus, and if concert presenters were trying to attract a younger, hipper audience, I’d say they succeeded. The crowd was made up mostly of 20- and 30-somethings who seemed to appreciate both the setting and the music. The room was arranged with a few rows of chairs lined up in front, and round cabaret tables scattered through the rest of the room. There seemed to be a buzz of excitement in the crowd before the band took the stage, but maybe that was because the bar was open and doing a brisk business (even though $7 for a smallish plastic cup of Shiraz seemed a bit steep).
The 90-minute, no-intermission show included songs from several Stew & the Negro Problem albums, as well as one from “Passing Strange,” the Tony-winning musical (later a Spike Lee-directed film) about the time frontman Mark "Stew" Stewart spent as a struggling musician in Berlin.
Backed by a hot, four-person band that included collaborator Heidi Rodewald on bass guitar and vocals, the genre-bending music slipped smoothly between Stew’s bluesy rock and the jazz/improv of the other talented musicians, especially Joe McGinty on keyboards and Michael McGinnis on sax. Stew’s vocals are gruff, the words more spoken than sung, and his delivery is theatrical, as befits someone with a Broadway background. His lyrics are also impressively literate, often poetic and frequently wryly funny. And, in case such things offend, there are occasional f-bombs.
The show started out with the low-key “Bleed,” which morphed into the bluesy “Rehab” (“She traded mainline for online then she took up web design. Now she’s paid in full and blows the horn of plenty.”) Also included was “"Gary's Song” (from an episode of the children’s TV show “SpongeBob SquarePants”); “We Just Had Sex” (from “Passing Strange”); and “Kingdom of Drink,” a humorous ode to the world of an alcoholic. “Ken,” about a Ken doll in a Mattel factory who realizes he’s gay, and “Black Men Ski,” which explored stereotypes about black men, added a bit of social commentary to the evening’s fun.
And fun it was, a terrific show as well as something deliciously different from UMS. Stew & the Negro Problem plays again Friday at 8 and Saturday at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets, if any are left, are available at the Michigan League ticket office, by phone at 734-764-2538, or online at ums.org. This one’s a hoot, even if you’re not a hipster.
Roger LeLievre is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.