Stew and the Negro Problem; December 5, 2011; Mitchell Theater at Vilas Hall
Mark “Stew” Stewart is an unlikely UW Madison professor. He’s critically acclaimed musician and the author of a Tony award winning semi-autobiographical musical Passing Strange. Yet, here he was hosting his last Monday night of music and interviews as he finishes up a semester teaching a songwriting class. While other nights have featured guest speakers and musicians, his final show was with his band the Negro Problem, enhanced with a few of the students from his class. The young trumpet, trombone and violin players all held their own even though Stewart himself admitted they had no idea what was going to be thrown at them that night. Often he would just point their direction, encouraging them to take a solo, and they would oblige. The rest of the band consisted of regular members, the drummer, the expressive keyboardist and bass player Heidi Rodewald, who is also his songwriting partner
I wasn’t really sure what to expect tonight, I was only marginally familiar with TNP and hadn’t actually heard any of the music, but I went anyway because it was free, early, nearby work, and most importantly, my friend Bill was going to be there. He had been to one of the earlier shows which featured noted faculty member Richard Davis. He said that night had consisted of Stew playing a song and then asking Davis about it. This was much more music and less talk, though Stew is an excellent and humorous storyteller. He has a warm, smooth speaking voice that accurately predicts his singing voice. Surprisingly, the performer I was most reminded of while watching him is Van Morrison. I couldn’t quite explain it, but there was something in his vocal and performance style that reminded me of one of Ireland’s most famous musicians.
It definitely wasn’t his songs, since I have a hard time picturing Van singing the line “The naked Dutch painter in your kitchen does not want to sleep with you,” from my favorite song of the night. Another memorable one was “Black Men Can Ski” which resulted from a stay at a ski lodge. The song which gained him the most cred with the younger audience, the much younger audience, was a song called “Where’s Gary?” that was featured on an episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants. Many of the songs came from the musical and had that musical quality to them… you know what I mean. It wasn’t necessarily my kind of music, but I still enjoyed the night as something completely different from what I am used to.