Daily Archives: March 12, 2015

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 took 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.

Dinosaur Eyelids: Good band, kinda dumb name

Dinosaur Eyelids at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Facebook)

Dinosaur Eyelids at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Facebook)

The only reason I heard of the band Dinosaur Eyelids is because somebody from the band took the time to write and ask me to give a listen to the band’s new album.

I politely said I’d see what I could do. Eventually the album, “Bypass to Nowhere,” showed up in CD form in my mailbox. That was the first clue that this band was an anomaly of sorts: Savvy enough to mine the Internet for place to seek a friendly ear and a kind word, but still sending out CDs. (The band has rectified this a bit, as the album is now online and available for purchase on Bandcamp. Tap or click here to get it.)

I loaded the album on my phone and intended to listen to it, but I kept skipping it. Weeks later, I finally decided to give it a listen.

I’m surprised, pleased, and maybe a little puzzled by what I heard. You should check them out.

Dinosaur Eyelids (an odd band name IMHO — although that’s not a bar to quality, given the example of For Squirrels, which is still one of my personal tragic favorites) is a New Brunswick, New Jersey, band that sounds like it’s from another time. they’ve been at it since 2009. Apparently they’ve been taking it seriously, and they’re good at what they do.

Here’s how the band describes its influences on its Facebook page: “Ween, The Stooges, Wilco, Nirvana, The Replacements, Soundgarden, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, The Who, Kyuss, Neil Young.” While most of those influences are evident, none dominates. Instead, Dinosaur Eyelids has managed to process those influences into a sound that’s at once familiar and original.

The album is filled with memorable tunes, crisp guitar work, marginally bad singing (but to good and intriguing effect) on a set of songs that draw from decades of rock without ever mimicking any one era.

Dinosaur Eyelids doesn’t have a lot of shows booked at the moment. Aside from a gig in Philadelphia on March 20, its first New York show for the year is scheduled for Saturday, April 18, at The Fifth Estate, 506 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn. The ‘Lids are capping off a four-band evening that also features Territorial Breed A Tribute to Nirvana, Caramel Mask, and Long Gone West.  The show starts at 8 p.m, with the ‘Lids up at 11. Admission is $10. For more information, call the club at 718-840-0089 or check out the website by tapping or clicking here.