The Suite Drug

With or without his band, the Negro Problem, Mark “Stew” Stewart totes his convoluted context around like an attaché. He’s a burly black man repping Bohemia, where race is supposed to be no big deal (but come the fuck on), and his work displays an awe-inspiring command of traditionally “white” song styles from powerpop to dreamy Burt Bacharoque to whatever you call what Richard Harris’s records sounded like, and whether or not you find this ironic or weird is your business. It’s just that his demographic unusualness is, like, the 10th or 11th most interesting thing about him, because black Americanness is just one of the much-sung-about subjects he’s able to find fresh beauty in—drugs are another, as is doomed romance, and Europe, and Los Angeles. Also, in his hands, the above-mentioned song styles never feel like, y’know, styles: Stew flat-out owns them, not the way one owns an old record but the way one owns one’s dreams.

At Joe’s Pub last Thursday, backed by frequent collaborators Heidi Rodewald and Marty Beller, he was cranky but generous with the one-liners. “This is a song about a sex worker,” he said while introducing “Bijou,” from his 2000 solo debut Guest Host. “I like the term ‘sex worker’ not because it’s p.c., but because it actually sounds dirtier than ‘prostitute.’ ” If he occasionally indulged a maudlin streak as wide as the 405 freeway, that’s kinda what the stool-and-spotlight solo-tour thing is for; besides, every song contained enough ninjitsu-deft rhymes and Fellini-esque background action and sardonic wit that it didn’t matter. Songs like “The Naked Dutch Painter” do everything a good novel should do, except maybe steady your table; dude’s a better singer than Richard Pryor and a better stand-up comic than Jimmy Webb, and I’m tempted to call him America’s best songwriter. But he’d probably prefer a dirtier word—how’s “tunesmith”? —Alex Pappademas

Robots Need Junkets Too

New York-based producer and indie hip-hop king El-P is kicking some weirdass robotic metaphors these days. As a result, when I left the Definitive Jux video world premiere screening in the Tribeca Grand’s basement Friday, May 16, I found myself fixated on inscrutable cans of tin.

A guy I knew in high school claimed to masturbate with Transformers, another has a game with his girlfriend where he pretends to be a robot who wants to eat children, but anyway. Before these techno fantasies dropped, I was sipping screwdrivers courtesy of a certain ubiquitous event-sponsoring brand of vodka, and eavesdropping on B-boys, college-radio nerds, and pasty anglophiles in fuzzy white Kangols musing about the Lakers’ loss to the Spurs. A tipsy El-P was master of ceremonies at this later of two rounds—too burnt to say much, just letting the videos run and yelling peanut-gallery-type things once in a while, mocking Murs’s VHS-C aesthetic in “Risky Business.”

During El’s own “Stepfather Factory,” an animated allegory about the nuclear family, I mistakenly laughed when an Ike Turner robot—framed tightly—rhetorically asks the anonymous mom: “Why are you making me hurt you? I love you.” My bad. I just find robot voices funny. Then came a split-consciousness video by RJD2, Humpty Hump in a house party, and the ever amazing Aesop Rock giving props to Style Wars. The real reason El-P gathered us kids, though, was the Revenge of the Robots tour documentary trailer, which included a cryptic exposition by Mr. Lif and a booty-dancing robot kicking it Short Circuit-style. Before this teaser dropped, El-P was forced to embarrass some sheepish folks he accused of departing early for the Matrix, basically the high-cost version of his hip-shaker science experiment. Not feeling the old-school Johnny-Five vibe, they left anyway. —Brandon Stosuy

Seeing the Lights

Hysterical dysphonia, an anxiety disorder causing stage paralysis, kept Linda Thompson from performing for over 15 years, but the only thing that froze during her two-hour Tuesday-night set at Joe’s Pub was the audience. Aside from a few gently swaying heads and the occasional sip of wine, listeners sat so transfixed by her voice that it looked like she was singing to a photograph, albeit one that could suddenly burst into applause. If that sounds like folkie nostalgia, it wasn’t. Backed by her son Teddy and Solas’s John Doyle, Thompson drew mostly from her latest (“not my last“) record, Fashionably Late. Even her cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1969 “Fiddle and the Drum” (“what time is this, to trade the fiddle for the fist”) had a mournful timeliness, and the set was spiked with unreleased songs, like the one intended for Down With Love, a film that Linda called “total shite, starring Renée Thinweger.”

Hardly a fit for romantic comedy, Thompson introduced most songs as though wryly glossing morbid short stories: Of “Nine Stone Ridge,” she said, “It’s the good old brothers-murdering-their-sisters theme.” Before “Banks of the Clyde,” about a Scottish woman who moves to London and becomes a prostitute, she gibed, “This is my story, with a few embellishments.” In the rolling gait of “Weary Life,” she inhabited the line “Better to be single than to be a married wife” with ho-hum sadness. Yet the music swelled above her bittersweet sensibility. She saved “Dimming of the Day” and “Walking on a Wire”—songs from her infamously tumultuous Richard days—for the end, and her voice busted out of the melancholy restraints of earlier recorded versions. Thompson’s performance offered flinty wisdom throughout—that of an artist who draws lessons from a painful past without getting mired in it. —Michael Miller