I was absolutely shocked to learn that black men ski. "Actually, I was too," admits Mark Stewart, the singer- songwriter known to his legion of disciples as Stew. This shock inspired him to pen the tune entitled, appropriately enough, "Black Men Ski," an early highlight of Stew's recent bravura Saturday night Oakland Metro performance -- the song generated good-natured guffaws instead of the awkward silence a lesser troubadour might've inspired.
Thankfully, Stew is no lesser troubadour -- he's as great as he is weirdly unconventional, for a number of somewhat disquieting reasons.
He ain't no wimpy white guy.
"Maybe it's just an accident that I'm black," Stew says -- strong words from a dude who rose to slight prominence a few years back with a rock band named the Negro Problem. (Its 2002 CD: Welcome Black.)
But he has a point. When you first pop in his latest release, Something Deeper Than These Changes, it sounds like standard issue adult-oriented folk pop -- Old People's Music, to put it another way -- which might compel you to initially dismiss it as more James Taylor opening act fodder. But the melodies and wry humor and airy production start to grow on you, and eventually you're emotionally invested enough to get a sharp jolt when you first actually lay eyes on the dude -- a severe-looking linebacker type who's perhaps cheated a bit on his off-season training regimen.
Brandishing dark sunglasses and slyly deadpan humor, Stew straddles the line between Ving Rhames and (gulp) John Mayer. And he'll be the first to admit how strange that sounds and sadly rare that is. "Troubadours come in all colors," he says. "Why the guitar is this very foreign instrument for young black men to express themselves with, I don't know why, except if they don't see enough guys on TV doin' it, they're not gonna do it. I mean, everybody raps. I take the bus, man. Everybody is a rapper. And that's cool. That's totally cool. But there are so many guys. Every guy I know raps. Not one of those guys has ever thought to pick up a guitar. It's really interesting."
Perhaps that's an overstatement: Stew isn't exactly the first man on the moon in this regard. But still, "I know that there are a lot of black young men out there who probably need about six or seven highly paid black men strumming guitars before they will be brave enough to do it themselves," he says. "The idiocy of this whole role model thing in this country, where you have to see this thing a million times before you're brave enough to do it yourself."
He's obsessed with Oakland.
Stew is a lifelong Raiders fan, you see. But the city still holds a mythic quality for him. "Oakland for me is a black city," he says. "That's not a dis to all the Asian and white and Hispanic people who live there, but when I was growing up in inner-city LA, we thought Berkeley is where left-wing folks were, San Francisco is where gay people were, and Oakland is where the black folks were. Never mind how the Bay Area feels about Los Angeles -- we revered the Bay Area. Every time we went there, we were like, 'Damn, why can't LA be more like this?'"
This may explain Stew's current fixation with the Oakland Metro, the downtown venue that mixes in poetry slams and punk shows with its usual slate of Oakland Opera Theater performances and singer- songwriter gigs. It's a relatively small, airy joint that provides both a hushed intimacy and a chance to sit down and just breathe.
"Of course we should be going and kissing butt at all the cool San Francisco clubs that we technically should be playing for maximum exposure," Stew notes. "But we actually dig playing this place. They let me do whatever I want. I don't have to let some goofy act open for me, and I don't have to play 35 minutes before some happening guy with an ironic trucker cap."
He has a prominent theatrical streak.
Stew's Metro gigs are miles away from your typical noisy club racket -- he commands complete silence up there, center stage with his acoustic guitar and bassist/backing vocalist Heidi Rodewald, his longtime partner in crime. During the second set, Stew threw down the guitar and let a piano player do most of the heavy lifting, which gave him a chance to indulge his Broadway side -- delivering the ballad "Love Like That" as if it was a Phantom of the Opera outtake, and adopting a hooting spoken-word poetry-slammer persona for the booze-centric "Kingdom of Drink."
"I want to bring all the heat and all the drama from the rock club and bring that into theater, rather than, 'Okay, folks, now we're doin' theater, so you have to pay forty bucks,'" he explains. "I wanna bring some of that juice into a theatrical context. I like people to sit. I like people to listen. But I like there to be sweat involved, and some drama. Real drama."
He can be easily bought.
Finally, there's this "Song Portrait" business. "Send twenty or so details about a person, place, or thing, and Stew will write a beautiful song about he, she, or it," trumpets his Web site, StewSongs.com. He is loath to discuss how many of these commissions he's accepted (or how much they cost), but he'd simply like it known that the holiday season is upon us, and he's fucking swamped.
So now he's getting choosy. "The commissions that I've accepted -- I've had to turn a lot down -- I've accepted them with an eye toward the unique subject matter," he says. "I'm writing a song right now about a woman who was told, on the gurney in the hospital, that she would not survive the birth of her twins. And she told her husband, 'If it's going to be me or them, I want it to be me.' And so she went through, managed to carry the kids, and now the kids are two years old and everybody's alive and everybody's happy. When he first sent me that explanation, I said, 'Man, you need a screenplay writer, not a songwriter. This is way too much. I really can't do this.' And he sent me this thing back saying, 'Please try.' There's a lot of 'My girlfriend's cute' stuff, definitely. But some of it's really fucking dramatic."
This guy's a Raiders fan, all right.
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