Passing Strange

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passing strange

Singer/Songwriter Stew, who can do beautiful ballads, punk, choir, and sometimes even sound like a preacher.

I flew to New York just to see this play off Broadway. I’ve been a fan of Stew, even when he was with his band TNP (you can Google yourself to see what that stands for). I remember one time going to see the Los Angeles troubadour at Java Joe’s (now famous for being the place that Jewel waitressed and performed). There were only five of us in the crowd, and Stew ended up leaving because of a disagreement with how the show was promoted. I don’t blame him.

Luckily, I saw him about seven other times here in San Diego, the last time when he got a big slot opening up for Arthur Lee and Love – a band his group was often compared to for their psychedelic vibe (and having members that were both black and white).

Stew was always a much better songwriter than Lee, and he’s perhaps the best songwriter that nobody knows (aside from the LA Times that have always given him love, and Entertainment Weekly, rightly calling one of his records the best of the year).

It’s another Lee – Spike Lee – that saw this play on opening night and decided to film three different performances of it live to make the movie.

At the show I was at, I caught up with Heidi Rodewald. She’s his former girlfriend, and longtime bassist and songwriting collaborator. She was in great spirits, and was telling me about how that night they had a meeting with Lee regarding the filming. I was thrilled for her.

When Spike Lee walked up (even shorter in person than I thought), I told him it’s great that he’s supporting this play and Stew. I started to tell him about how great a songwriter I thought Stew was, and he just walked away from me. Uh…okay.

My girlfriend went over to him a few minutes later to say hello. He just looked away, and she walked back over saying “What a jerk!”

But I’m a professional critic. I don’t let bumps in the road get in the way of writing a fair and honest review of his work.

Lee used cinematographer Matthew Libatique (he’s worked on Inside Man for Lee, and Iron Man for Marvel). The shows were filmed without an audience, and I thought that might hurt things. Libatique and Lee did a great job of not losing a lot of the powerful vibe it had live. There’s really a lot of energy from that crowd. And I have to think that gets the juices flowing for the musicians and actors on stage, too.

Stew wrote this autobiographical story about his life growing up in Los Angeles, in a middle-class neighborhood. I remember hearing him say once “I would always be the only black person at the rock concerts I went to with my friends.”

His mom tried encouraging him to join the church choir, and he eventually did…after meeting a girl in the choir he had a crush on. This leads to the pastors son giving him pot for the first time.

The young version of Stew is played on stage by Daniel Breaker. His mom is played by Eisa Davis. Both are magnificent in their roles.

Stew ends up going to Amsterdam, getting involved in punk rock, politics, art, and poetry. Oh, and more hash. He had sex for the first time (which gives us the best song of the play – We Just Had Sex).

When I saw the play live, I was thrilled to hear all new material. The last time I had seen Stew perform, at an Adams Avenue Street Fair, the only new song was Black Men Ski. I did notice Passing Strange used a few songs from his old catalogue as well (Arlington Hill, Must Have Been High, and the chorus of Come Down Now). They fit for what he was trying to say at those moments.

I thought the movie version of the play was okay, but lacked what the piece had live.   The soundtrack is solid, but if you’re going to get some Stew music – I’d suggest you go for his solo records Naked Dutch Painter, Guest Host, and Something Deeper Than These Changes. Those three are among favorite records of all-time.

This movie gets a B-.