When you call your band the Negro Problem, you’re clearly not trying to making anyone feel comfortable. And as front man Stew, a formidable, but gentle black man in a goofy tasseled wool cap, took the stage at the Knitting Factory for the L.A. band’s first hometown perf in years, he was not out to make any new friends. “This is the lookie-loo crowd,” he sniffed before even playing a note as he surveyed the sold-out house at a party celebrating the release of the band’s third album, “Welcome Black” (Smile Records).
But it’s a toothless putdown, a pose that you’d expect from a man who writes literate vignettes limning the cash-poor cafe society of the hills above Hollywood and points east, a demimonde filled with “trailer park Belmondos” and party girl librarians.
He sets these tales to elegantly constructed pop tunes. There’s the languorous Jimmy Webb-styled ballad “Watering Hole,” in which losers spin cosmopolitan dreams while sitting in a shot and a beer gin mill; and “Bong Song,” about thrill-seeking hipsters who can’t quite deal with the ‘hood, set to a gently baroque, Zombies piano figure.
It’s a kitchen-sink approach to songwriting, but more controlled and musical than other cut-and-paste songsters. Like Webb, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Stew uses odd instrumentation, combining sitars, horns and keyboards to give the tunes emotional coloring. He has a sense of harmony to rival the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, and he has learned to contrast his vocals with those of longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald in a manner recalling Lee Hazelwood’s duet with Nancy Sinatra.
And he still can push some buttons. The band encore, a version of Rufus’ soul classic “Tell Me Something Good” done as 1960s country pop would be impressive under any circumstance, but when sung by a black man fronting a pop band, it raises all kinds of issues about identity, race and music.