Stew stirs things up with fantastic new songs at Barbès

The hat was more crumpled at Barbès on July 25, but Stew's energy was at a peak. (Photo © 2012, Steven P.  Marsh)

The hat was more crumpled than this at Barbès on July 25 and Stew’s energy level seemed higher than usual. (Photo © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

By the time his latest gig in his musical living room (aka Park Slope, Brooklyn, boîte Barbès) rolled around Thursday night, July 25, singer-songwriter and Tony Award winner Stew had dumped his original staged plan to play versions of his songs from Passing Strange and other numbers from his extensive repertoire.

Instead, he launched into a tight song cycle “inspired by recent events.” In other words, songs about George Zimmerman and the Trayvon Martin case. If yoy don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s time to get out from under that rock where you’ve been living and catch up on the news!

If you’re a Passing Strange fan who passed on the show for one reason or another and are thinking now that this make you feel OK about missing, hold that thought. I’m here to tell you differently.

How was it? You won’t know because you weren’t there!

Stew delivered a vital, energetic set of amazing songs that nobody but the performers had ever heard before. It was transporting.

Stew asked to keep the songs where they belonged, in the confines of the tiny music room, asking the audience not to record or film. In that spirit, I didn’t snap any pictures, either, out of respect for Stew’s wishes.

I just sat back, put the notebook and camera away and absorbed what he was about to do.

What he did, backed up by The Negro Problem (actually a “Stew-donym” for Drye & Drye, a father-and-son horn-driven jazz band that played the evening’s first set and counts longtime Stew sideman Mike McGinnis a member), was one of the best, most entertaining shows I’ve seen Stew do in awhile.

He sang a series of melodic numbers that examined  the case in his inimitable, humorous-with-an-edge way.

Because I deliberately sat back to listen, rather than process, analyze and mentally record the songs, I can’t tell you how many songs he did  or what any of them, save the closer, is called.

Suffice to say he ripped through the set like a jazz bandleader, throwing off cues, calling for horn fills, major volume shifts and tempo changes, while handling all the lead vocals in a jazzy, improv-but-not-quite-scat style.  (His writing partner and longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, who typically handles some vocal duties at Negro Problem gigs, was absent.)

Stew said the songs had just been written, or at least finished, that day, so they were new to everyone, including the band. But he was dealing with a truly splendid crew that seemed totally in sync with Stew.

Saying he can’t really come up with the ideas to write songs when he’s mad about something, he turns to other sources for inspiration. He particularly credited his friend and director Joanna Settle for inspiring one song with a conversation about the Zimmerman case.

Undoubtedly these songs are a long way from finished — thus Stew’s request that they not be filmed. But they seem like a strong foundation for a new album, or maybe even a show, examining justice and society instead.

Stew already has done the self-referential album Making It. Perhaps his next project will be a collection of tunes built on this base that looks at how the rest of us are — or aren’t — making it, too.

By the way, the one song whose title I do know was the only number from Stew’s back catalogue: “Sexy Brooklyn Mami” from the 2010 Brooklyn Omnibus show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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