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Feature Review: Stew & the Negro Problem, Making It

Stew & the Negro Problem
Making It
[Tight Natural Productions (2011)]

For nearly 15 years, singer-songwriter Stew and bassist/arranger/composer Heidi Rodewald were a couple as well as musical partners in two groups—the Negro Problem and Stew. After the pair’s successful collaboration on the Tony winning musical Passing Strange, their personal relationship started to unravel, and Making It is somewhat of their version of Rumours, dealing humorously, angrily, sadly, and ultimately optimistically with their romantic separation and its aftermath.

Like the pair’s previous collaborations, Making It is loaded with intelligent and richly textured songs that incorporate influences including classic rock, R&B, jazz, show tunes. The disc opens, in theatrical fashion, with the title tune, a powerful instrumental overture that is all throbbing bass, swirling B-3 organ, and punchy horns. “Pretend” focuses on the powerful emotional charge that can be linked with an innocuous pop song. Starting as late night jazz, the tune builds to a big arena rock finish. The witty, operatic “Black Men Ski” chronicles the cultural divide African American Stew experienced when he took a vacation in Aspen. “Curse” deals with the sudden changes that occur when a romance suddenly deflates Stew and Heidi alternate singing the tune’s painfully ironic lyrics, which include these great lines:

You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse.
We won’t flag you a taxi, we’ll just hail you a hearse.
You think you’ll never find better than her, and since you won’t settle for worse,
still you want to converse without her being so terse,
tell her to put down her purse, ask her to lift the curse.

The punk rock vehicle “Speed” explores the allure and the deceptions of amphetamines, culminating in some ferocious free-blown sax. Rodewald sings the lazy, ruminative pop tune “Love is a Cult.” “Tomorrow Gone” skips along with a slow reggae beat, whimsical clarinet and looping guitars that bely the sadness of future plans suddenly evaporating. Another big production number, “Leave Believe,” deals with the emotional landscapes that lead up to a breakup. The disc’s requiem is “Treat Right,” which lays the generous ground rules for the pair’s transition from love affair to a purely professional relationship.

Because Stew and Heidi’s music doesn’t fit readily into categories, they have not always enjoyed the success in the recording arena that was afforded Passing Strange in the theatrical world. Hopefully this smart, finely crafted, and emotionally challenging disc will change that. Highly recommended.

—Micheal Parrish (San Jose, CA)

One comment on “Feature Review: Stew & the Negro Problem, Making It

  1. If not for a Reel Music series at the Portland Art Museum screening movies elating to the making of music, I would not have seen Stew & Heidi Roedewald (of The Negro Problem)
    in PASSING STRANGE. The movie was a Spike Lee dozen camera array of the Broadway
    production of this moving autobiographical play about Stew’s life growing up in fairly assimilated South Central L.A. to a standard if African-American working Mom, as contrasted with the worlds Stew has had to be PASSING STRANGE (as some honorary non-minority outsider) through. Like the years in Germany where early Negro Problem musical stage productions were part of the experimental avant garde Euro underground art scene. Rent or buy the video. Spike Lee’s visual take on the stage play and Stew & Heidi’s & the passionate cast’s performances in very engaging and emotionally challenging material is unlike anything on cable, the silver screen or the shelf at the video rental shop. Thanks for paying attention and calling attention to this new audio release of The Negro Problem’s work as a band.

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