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Stew’s stoked about James Baldwin

Stew in the Harlem Stage theater, where his "Notes of a Native Song" premieres in June. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Stew in the Harlem Stage theater on March 11. His new show “Notes of a Native Song” premieres there in June. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

‘Passing Strange’ creator to challenge and honor author in Harlem Stage commission

Stew rarely takes the predictable route — at least in public.

So when the pop-song writer and founder of The Negro Problem ook the floor at Harlem Stage on Wednesday night for “Behind the Curtain: Stew,” a talk about his upcoming show in the beautiful Gatehouse theater, I had few expectations.

Would he talk? Would he offer a cynical take on “Notes of a Native Song,” the piece he’s creating as part of the Year of James Baldwin, which celebrates the 90th anniversary of his birth? Would he read from the show in progress? Would he perform some of the songs?

He did a little of most of those thing — with remarkable engagement and not a touch of cynicism.

The Gatehouse, a Romanesque Revival former water pumping station that's home to Harlem Stage. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

The Gatehouse, a Romanesque Revival former water pumping station that’s home to Harlem Stage. (© 2015, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Maybe the venue — in Harlem, in front of a crowd that seemed earnest and engaged, exhibiting little of the hipster affect often on display at the downtown and Brooklyn venues where Stew more often appears — had something to do with it.

But it was more than that.

“When artists talk, they, for the most part, lie,” Stew said at the outset of the evening.

I’m in no position to judge his truthfulness, but his presentation came across as warm, personable, and, honest, without a trace of pose or ennui. Stew appeared deeply engaged with his subject — his reaction to Baldwin, and Baldwin’s  relationship with mentor and impediment Richard Wright.

If the artist was lying, it was a beautiful lie.

Stew held forth with only his guitar to accompany him as he opened the program with his laugh-inducing song “Black Men Ski.” While it wasn’t clear that he intends to include that song in the June show, it set the tone for the fun to follow.

He performed four other songs and fragments that apparently are part of the show, at least as it stands at this point in its development. Based on lyrical fragments, I’ll dub the three fleshed-out numbers “Brave, Suffering, Beautiful,” “Me, and You, and Jimmy,” and “Don’t Pray for the Boy Preacher” (with music, he said, by his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald). The fourth, of which he sang just a fragment — with some help from the audience with a spaghetti Western backing vocalization — cast Baldwin and Wright as gunslingers at High Noon in “Paris town.”

Given Stew’s position as a Tony-winning writer of rock musicals and other musical plays, such as “Passing Strange,”  you might expect “Notes of a Native Song” will be another of those, given that it will have its premiere in a respected theater.

But, based on Stew’s description, that’s not the case. He said it’ll feature “some musicians” performing the songs with scripted rants between them, because he’s comfortable with the structure of a concert.

And don’t expect the “Ken Burns, PBS James Baldwin” in this show, either. Stew promises the unexpurgated Baldwin — a detail he underscored with his unrestrained language throughout the evening — including a declaration of love for speaking all of the names that used to label African Americans over the years.

Stew seems as engaged and exited by this project as anything I’ve seen him do in years. So by that measure, it’s a safe bet that “Notes of a Native Song” will be a gem.

Get your tickets now, because it’s a short run in a small theater (just 200 seats) and it will sell out quickly.

“Notes of a Native Song” will receive six performances (fours shows at 7:30 p.m., plus two 2 p.m. matinees) from Jun 3-7, at Harlem Stage, 150 Convent Avenue, Manhattan. Tickets for the show, featuring cabaret-style seating, are $55 and available by tapping or clicking here. Call 212-281-9240 or tap or click here for more information Harlem Stage and its offerings.

Freedy Johnston, a songwriter’s songwriter, brings his well-crafted songs to Hastings on Saturday

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Throughout his 25-year career, singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston has developed a loyal following with his finely detailed story songs. His compositions tend to be filled with dark, broken characters, set to lithe, almost jaunty melodies — and are always highly original.

The title tune from his latest album, last fall’s “Neon Repairman,” breaks that tradition a bit because it sounds so familiar. It evokes Jimmy Webb’s 1968 classic “Wichita Lineman.”

I got a chance to talk to Johnston recently for The Journal News/lohud.com in advance of his show on Saturday night at The Purple Crayon in Hastings-on-Hudson. You can read it by tapping or clicking here.

Jonathan Demme proves his love for The Feelies

Jonathan Demme introduces The Feelies at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., after a screening of "Something Wild" on Jun 1, 2014. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Jonathan Demme introduces The Feelies at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., after a screening of “Something Wild” on Jun 1, 2014. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

The promo line on the front page of The Journal News on Thursday  said it: “Jonathan Demme Loves The Feelies.”

On Sunday night at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., Demme proved it.

“I guess I don’t get to the venues as much as I used to, because maybe I hit the sack a little earlier than I used to,” Demme told me when I interviewed him for lohud.com/The Journal News. “But definitely… I’d go anywhere to see The Feelies. I’d stay up late to see The Feelies.”

The Feelies onstage at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., on Sunday, June 1, 2014.

The Feelies onstage at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., on Sunday, June 1, 2014.

At the Burns Film Center, Demme had his dreams fulfilled without having to stay up too terribly late. The movie ran from about 7 p.m. to just before 9. It took Continue reading

Julia Wolfe’s ‘Anthracite Fields’ takes coal mining personally

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It’s hard to believe that the Bang on a Can All -Stars haven’t performed on a New York Philharmonic bill before.

But Friday night’s New York premiere of a work by Bang on a Can cofounder Julia Wolfe was the stellar New Music sextet’s debut.

And what a way to start!

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Don’t miss your last chance to hear Eisa Davis’ work in progress (for now)

Eisa Davis in the spotlight at Jack in Brooklyn on April 23, 2014.. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

Eisa Davis in the spotlight at Jack in Brooklyn on April 23, 2014.. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

The magnificent Eisa Davis, who you’ve probably seen somewhere on TV if you didn’t meet her, like I did, through “Passing Strange,” is not just a singer and actress, but an accomplished playwright as well.

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‘I’m talkin’ little Jimmy Baldwin, baby — you gotta go to Another Country if you wanna get to Giovanni’s Room

‘Passing Strange’ alums bring new work to the New York stage in celebration of James Baldwin

BaldwinSome of my readers may recognize the main headline of this post as a quote from the musical play “Passing Strange.”

It’s Mr. Franklin, the church choir director talking, sitting in a VW Bug with some of his musical charges, holding a “prayer circle” whose sacramental ritual involved smoking weed.

It was hardly the only touching moment in the 2008 Tony-winning musical, but it was one of the more memorable.

I often say, jokingly, that everything in my life somehow connects to “Passing Strange.” When I look at the artists and performances that have inspired me over the years since I first encountered the show in a developmental form then known as “Travelogue,” back around 2004, many of them are somehow connected to the existential musical play.

Later this month, three key members of the “Passing Strange” family — Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald, and actors from the original production Colman Domingo and Eisa Davis — and a slew of other notable writers and performers will be involved in the New York Live Arts “Live Ideas Festival: James Baldwin, This Time!”  (Tap or click here for schedule and ticket options.)

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Black 47’s long goodbye comes to Yonkers

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What form of entertainment could be more appropriate in St. Patrick’s weekend than a Black 47 concert?

And the great thing is , if you love in the Lower Hudson Valley, you don’t even have to trek into New York City to see them (unless you simply must do it on Monday, St. Patrick’s Day proper, when they appear at B.B. King’s).

The lauded Irish-American rock band, which is calling it quits in November, is playing Sunday afternoon at Empire City Casino in Yonkers.

For mor info, check out my interview with Larry Kirwan, the lead singer and cofounder. It’s online now at LoHud.com and is scheduled to appear in Friday’s editions of The Journal News.

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