Stew just can’t shed his Negro Problem

Stew in his breakup show, "Making It," at St. Ann's Warehouse in February 2010. (Copyright 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

Three shows at Joe’s Pub mark Tuesday’s release of Stew & The Negro Problem’s new album, Making It

The cover of Making It features a photo by Stew's daughter, Bibi.

First of all, let’s say “welcome black” to Stew & The Negro Problem.

It’s been 10 long years since Stew (born Mark Stewart in 1961) and his band The Negro Problem made a proper, official album: 2002’s Welcome Black. But on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the wait is officially over when Making It gets its official release.

Thank goodness. It’s long overdue. But you’ll surely find it worth the wait.

It’s a crazy, creative look at the breakup of Stew’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend and musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The breakup came in the run-up to the pair’s amazing theater project,  Passing Strange, which briefly thumbed its nose at the Broadway establishment from the Belasco Theatre over six months in 2008. (It also lives on in a Spike Lee film of the show’s final performances.)

Heidi Rodewald and Stew. (Copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

Stew and Heidi managed to survive the breakup and continue their artistic relationship, albeit not without some problems. This album documents the breakup, and in some ways, the promise of their continued collaboration.

This is Stew’s fourth album under the rather provocative name of The Negro Problem, though on  this release on TNP records, the band is billed as “Stew & The Negro Problem.” And even though Stew seemed to abandon the band name in favor of his own moniker, Stew and Heidi haven’t released a rock album since 2003’s Something Deeper Than These Changes, billed simply to Stew. (Yes, there was a Passing Strange soundtrack in 2008, but that wasn’t a Stew record, let alone a Negro Problem record!)

Let’s just say it’s about time! It’s always seemed to me that Stew needs The Negro Problem to fuel his angry-not-as-young-as-he-used-to-be-man persona. (Truth be told, he’s used The Negro Problem name occasionally in recent years, but this seems to be a definitive return home.)Hard-core fans won’t find many surprises in this album. True believers have been wearing out copies of a slightly different version of Making It for a year, when it was released as a tour CD of sorts at Stew and Heidi’s show Brooklyn OMNIBUS at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But that’s OK. It’s fantastic to see the music make its way into the wider world, so everyone can discover what we already know.

The Making It album grew out of a St. Ann’s Warehouse commission of the same name. It was performed as a concert with a bit of a set and a loose story arc in February 2010 at the Brooklyn venue.

The new album follows that arc, hurtling the listener quickly into the couple’s breakup and the subsequent realization of how they changed each other’s lives and were destined to stay together in some way.

The songs bounce back and forth between new, breakup-specific songs and longtime Stew and Heidi favorites looking for a home on a record. In the former category, standouts include “Pretend,” “Curse” (sample lyrics: “Seven different versions of who got fucked and who hurts the most … and then you watch your love turn into a ghost”) and “Love Is A Cult” (where Heidi sings, “Life is the tour and love is the wrong turn). And the favorites that don’t have any direct lyrical connection — though clearly have a psychological link — include “Black Men Ski,” which was fairly popular on the Internet after Stew performed it at the TED conference way back in 2006.

There is one difference between last year’s release and the new, wide-release version. And that alone makes it work buying. In the new version, “Therapy Only Works If You Tell The Truth” shoulders the classic “Pastry Shop” out of the album. And it makes sense, hammering home the breakup theme more clearly and perfectly setting up the let’s-be-friends finale, “Treat Right Song.” (Oh, and Stew’s lovely daughter, Bibi, took the cover photo, reproduced in this post.)

Stew’s lyrics are always biting and ironic, and he’s as good as ever on this album. Even better is that Making It gives Heidi, who’s an amazing musician in her own right, a chance to shine more than usual.

Stew, Heidi and the band have quite a bit of work in the pipeline this year. It kicks off tomorrow, with the first two of three shows at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan to celebrate the release of the long-awaited album. (Tickets, $30, are available here.)

Then in a matter of days, they’ll be performing their newest show, The Total Bent, at New York’s Public Theater (we’ll be telling you more about this soon), with a Monday-night artist’s talk during the show’s run.

The pair are also scheduled to do a reading of a new show, Stagger Lee, based on a graphic novel about the legendary subject, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Ignite! series.

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