Having performed tributes to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash at the Getty Center’s Williams Auditorium, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stew finally played himself, showcasing his sophisticated songcraft and wryly humane humor.
The hourlong show was a loosely structured song cycle, with Stew sauntering between a table on stage right, where he sat delivering monologues like a darker Spaulding Gray, a mike stand center stage and a podium stage left, where he orated like a preacher, mixing new material from the musical he’s developing for New York’s Public Theater, “Passing Strange,” with a few songs from his solo albums.
Early going is something of a coming-of-age story, opening up with an argument between a mother and son about going to church. For her, walking “Christ’s catwalk” is something she couldn’t endure; for him, the service was like “a Grateful Dead concert times 10.” He later ends up getting high with the preacher’s son, a story that leads into “The Drug Suite” (from his 2002 album “The Naked Dutch Painter”), that climaxes in a lovely vocal counterpoint between Stew and his long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald.
The lyrics of these songs combine high art with black pop culture: Dr. Caligari in a mudhut with James Brown, painter Egon Schiele appearing on Soul Train. The influence of French New Wave films (which hit in his “Gauloise brain”) comes to the fore in the a witty tribute to director Jean-Luc Godard: As each of his films is named, the band responds, “we love it,” like some revival house version of Randy Newman. In a slyly Godardian touch, the words “end of cinema — end of song” are projected behind the band as the tune finishes.
It serves as the fulcrum to the evening, as the songs turn to the Cole Porter-esque sketches of bohemia of Stew’s solo album. “She Gave Me Her Keys” could be a prequel to “The Naked Dutch Painter,” while it also contrasts the trust he feels in Europe with the accusing stares in Beverly Hills. A song describing the bombing of a pastry shop in Beirut is possibly the most emotionally rich song he’s written, beautifully capturing a besieged city’s sense of loss and dislocation.
Backed by a piano trio, the evening feels like an arthouse cabaret. Charlie Zayleskie on piano and Joe Berardi on drums add easy, subtle colors to the tunes while Rodewald’s basslines have the melodic dreaminess of “Pet Sounds.” They whet the appetite for a fully staged version of the songs.