Ann Arborites will receive a playful dose of wit and irreverence when indie-rock musician Stew and his band The Negro Problem come to town for Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening sets, presented by the University Musical Society.
Stew & The Negro Problem
Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
523 S. Main Street
Tickets at $45
The Negro Problem is anchored by the guitars and vocals of charismatic front man Stew (Mark Stewart) and the bass and vocals of collaborator Heidi Rodewald. though his discography dates back to The Negro Problem’s 1997 effort Post Minstrel Syndrome, Stew — who has also released albums just as “Stew” — may be best recognized as the creative force behind the 2008 Tony award-winning “Passing Strange,” a musical profiling a young man’s search for the “real.”
Director Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”) adapted the show’s closing performances into a well received 2009 Sundance film of the same name, which the University of Michigan Museum Of Art screened this past Sunday. Paul Farber, a Ph.D. candidate in the University’s American Culture department who will moderate a “public conversation” with Stew on Thursday evening, praised Stew’s theatrical efforts.
“I’ve taught ‘Passing Strange’ in two courses at the University of Michigan, and I see how in each class the musical gave students the creative license to push their own limits and knowledge,” Farber wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily.
Despite the musical’s positive press, Stew insisted in a recent interview with the Daily his commitment to music, saying “I don’t feel like a playwright.” Stew also expressed enthusiasm for the band’s Ann Arbor stop.
“It’s one of those oases, you know?” Stew said. “Sort of the classic kind of American, you know, college town that feels somehow different than the rest of America that surrounds it.”
Ann Arbor — just one of a handful of stops on the group’s first national tour in six years — may prove the optimal audience to field Stew’s clever lyricism. Songs range from drug-bender ballads to poignant character sketches of Don Quixote-like mysticism. Take the ode “Giselle” on 2002’s solo effort The Naked Dutch Painter … and Other Songs, in which Stew croons: “Her rabbit won’t pose for Hef / She wears leather, whatever the weather.”
Stew defines The Negro Problem as “more busy baroque” music than his individual work with Rodewald.
Stew’s prowess as a wordsmith doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Stew is one of the most innovative musicians and storytellers in the culture today,” Farber wrote.
Though his lyrical trove is expansive, Stew acknowledges a common thread to his music and mission as an artist.
“I think the constant guiding me is I’ve always wanted to sort of subvert this idea of whatever the expected is,” Stew said. “(What) you’ve expected of me as a man, you’ve expected of me as a black man, you know, they expected of us as a band.”
Stew added, “The actual topics aren’t as interesting to me as the perspective on the topics.”
According to Stew, the seed of “subversion” planted itself when he was a child in the 1960s, a decade host to an eclectic, hardly homogenous music scene.
While a selection from a song like “Giselle” might highlight Stew’s more comical musings, it’s obvious that his music scrapes mature, important issues. For instance, the public conversation between Stew and Farber, as detailed on the University’s Alumni Association website, will include “ideas about race and identity.”
“Stew is the kind of performer who helps us confront together, and not shy away from separately, the most pressing issues facing our society, including race,” Farber wrote.
This goal comes to light in the band’s potentially polarizing name. Stew explained that The Negro Problem, while an “old political phrase,” alludes to the joint vision shared by himself and Rodewald — to have fun creating music.
“I think laughter is actually the most subversive thing you can do,” Stew said. “It’s just having fun. It’s just music, you know ― it’s not politics.”