“You want me to play WHERE?”
That was Stew’s first reaction when he got the call inviting him to do a concert a the newly reopened Alice Tully Hall. As the singer-songwriter told the audience at his March 6 concert there—with collaborator Heidi Rodewald, a band of 17 instruments, plus singers de’Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, and Rebecca Jones—he got the call while he was playing a gig in New Jersey, at “some club where Bruce Springsteen once threw up.”
Stew’s Tully concert—14 songs plus two encores from his Broadway show Passing Strange—showcased the acoustics of Tully, which now has some black muffling panels that can be brought down to cover the hall’s beautiful moabi wood side panels, to dampen the sound and the decibel level during amplified events. It is perhaps significant that, as someone who attends almost exclusively acoustic events, I heard my first concert at the new Tully in this hybrid concert, which used the amplified string quartet ETHEL, a tuba-trombone-trumpet group called The Brass Problem, electric keyboards and guitars, and percussion.
I must say that based on this concert alone, the sound in the new space is excellent—nothing like the ringing in my ears that I remember after seeing Passing Strange at the Belasco Theatre last year. The accomplished and well-rehearsed ensemble assembled for this event sounded full and round and warm, really just a louder version of a straight acoustic sound, not harsh or screechy. A lot has been written in the press about the redesign of Tully Hall. From my standpoint in the audience, I will say the most important aspect of the re-do seems to be the way in which the space breaks down barriers, and not just in the hall itself. The all-glass exterior at the corner of Broadway and 65th Street makes for a much warmer welcome; the little bar/restaurant inside was packed at 7:40 when I arrived, people outside were sitting on the steps near the sidewalk, and in general the atmosphere was more like a downtown club than is typical for any Lincoln Center venue. The commemorative Tully program (for the Opening Nights Festival, February 22-March 8)—a fancier-than-usual program commemorating two weeks of low-priced, free or $25-a-ticket concerts and other events—had a long essay by Ronen Givony, the founder of the Wordless Music Series in New York, whose home base is now the Poisson Rouge (on the old site of the Village Gate). In his essay, Givony asked questions like, “Why is a person who writes music performed for seated audiences (no matter how small) considered a ‘composer,’ while a person who writes music performed for hundreds or thousands of people standing up considered…something else?” Givony, of course, is an advocate of losing distinctions between rock, indie music, classical—as long as the music is good. As people began to fill the auditorium, I heard exclamations of “Wow, this is cool!” These people weren’t talking about the redesign; they clearly had never been in Alice Tully Hall at any previous time, and were willing to trek uptown to hear music they liked. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the tickets were $25, either.
Stew and Heidi Rodewald are a gifted songwriting team. That in itself makes a one-off concert like this worth seeing. But the concert was also notable for the way it didn’t present itself too seriously; in one number, ETHEL danced and held their instruments in the air … not your grandmother’s string quartet. Humor was an important part of the evening. The song “Black Men Ski” is about the bizarre experience of being the only black guy in Aspen, which Stew calls “the belly of the beast.” Another song, “Ken,” about a Ken doll who’s more interested in Len than Barbie, has a repeated tra-la-la lyric that’s actually “Fa la fucking la,” in which Stew encouraged the audience to join him. “Peter Jennings,” written way before Jennings died, is a story of two stoned kids driving through L.A. at 3 a.m., paranoid about cops they can just feel are about to appear; Jennings appears as an angel/policeman of kindness and mercy. Part of that song incorporates Stew’s uncanny wailing as the police siren.
Stew at one point asked the audio mixer to lower the sound for all performers except ETHEL, the string quartet, because “That’s what this hall is really for, right?” Yes, it is. But also, some of us lifelong classical concertgoers are happy to welcome Stew—amps and expletives and New York-misgivings and all—into our midst.
Photo of Stew by Steve Halin