A highbrow evening with Stew and The Negro Problem
The intimate, lounge-like 250-person Vanderhoef Studio Theatre was the perfect setting for musician Stew and his provocatively-titled band, The Negro Problem, on Tuesday evening. The name is meant to challenge perceptions be in-your-face and humorous, which also describes the band’s music quite accurately.
Announcing that his band was probably mad at him because he had no setlist, Stew guided the seated older crowd on a musical journey that was insightful, comical and just plain sounded great.
The lyrically driven songs were the stars, with each being a slice-of-life anecdote coupled with simple but sophisticated accompaniment provided by collaborator and bassist Heidi Rodewald and the rest of The Negro Problem.
They fused styles seamlessly – including Baroque pop with jazz sensibilities and a tendency to rock. There were even opportunities for synth riffs and a flute solo.
At times juvenile, Stew’s lyrical content was elevated by the underlying wit and social commentary and the cohesive Negro Problem instrumentation.
Two songs into the set the audience was presented with the song “Ken,” about a Ken doll in a Mattel factory who realizes he’s gay: "My name's Ken, and I like men/But the people at Mattel … are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities."
Complete with ski-pole charades from Stew, “Black Men Ski” dealt with stereotypical perceptions of what black men do and don’t do, including Stew's experiences visiting Aspen. The act drew fits of giggling from the amused crowd.
And after proclaiming “I love marijuana, I just don’t have the time to score it” and extolling the joys of getting high, Stew and band played “Bong Song,” with its addictive “Bong! Song!” doorbell-like repetitive chorus. Puerile perhaps, but relevant here as California’s upcoming elections feature Proposition 19, which among other things seeks to legalize personal marijuana-related activities.
It seemed to be the theme for the night: music and melodies so sweet it was easy to lose sight of the deeper themes being discussed. And, yes, they would rank high on a list of bands with generally offensive names. But if you get the joke and see them perform, you’re in for a very enlightening evening.
Stew and the Negro Problem play a second show on Wednesday at the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre in Davis. Tickets are $49 general, $24.50 for students.
Photos by Steven Chea