Stew and the Negro Problem are performing at Club Helsinki in Hudson on Friday night. If you have difficulty with the band name, see the picture. It’s worth a thousand words, and besides, I don’t do ‘how did you get the band name’ questions. In actuality, you will be getting the core duo of long-time cohorts Heidi Rodewald and Stew, from which the Negro Problem and all their good music comes.
Oh and yes, Stew and Heidi are the same talented duo behind “Passing Strange,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway rock musical – which also became the acclaimed Spike Lee film. But the music predates the Great White Way. Stew and Rodewald lead two critically acclaimed bands – the Negro Problem and Stew – both with solid discographies: “Post Minstrel Syndrome” (TNP, 1997), “Joys and Concerns” (TNP, 1999), “Guest Host” (S, 2000), “The Naked Dutch Painter” (S, 2002), “Welcome Black” (TNP, 2002), “Something Deeper Than These Changes” (S, 2003).
I put the question to Stew: From its inception, the Negro Problem has been a rocking, smart, pop combo. Post “Passing Strange,” is the band now high-falutin’, only capable of being described in shades, textures and nuance?
Stew admits, “It is an issue. The audience is now a bit schizo.” The play’s success brings theater fans into the fold, and has led to band shows curated by performing arts centers, who are sometime guilty of describing the experience, as having “a wonderful richness, wicked sensibility, among the collaborators.” I can assure you that the only wonderful richness you will experience at this rock show will come from ordering the desert.
The original rock audience now finds tickets scarce on the night of shows because the theater crowd tends to be more of pre-sale crowd than the average club goer. Stew adds, “It’s not the worst problem to have.”
Describing the music of the Negro Problem has never been easy. I am beginning to think that “Funk-Pop-a-Roll” (the title of an XTC song) might cover it. “Afro-baroque cabaret” is the term most often used. The comparisons used on Club Helsinki’s website are Kurt Weill, Burt Bacharach and Jackie Gleason.
Since comparisons are often used to describe a band, I challenged Stew to pigeon-hole himself and give two bands to place on either side of the record shelf that serve to describe his own sound. Stew warned that his answer “may not be comprehensible,” but he offered Jacques Brel (the Belgian singer-songwriter who sang in French) and Albert Ayler (the American avant-garde jazz saxophonist).
Heidi and Stew are down-and-dirty pop-rockers with indie-music hearts, whose song-craft, harmonies and humor are sure to be on display on Friday’s show.
Story by Matt Mac Haffie