L.A. singer-songwriter Stew has long demonstrated an aptitude for clever, baroque pop with his band the Negro Problem, but as a solo artist he's applied that talent to deeper personal expression. On Wednesday at Largo, he braved potentially cliched emotional territory, playing one song appreciating his departed mother's love and another dedicated to his young daughter, without sounding maudlin or hackneyed in either.
Colorfully clad in red and orange with a polka-dot kerchief around his neck, the shaved-headed, goateed musician (real name: Mark Stewart) prefaced many tunes with long, funny introductions and punctuated them with comic gestures. The 90-minute set featured most of the material from his new album, "Something Deeper Than These Changes," plus a half-hour encore of older favorites.
With TNP cohort Heidi Rodewald and Probyn Gregory helping out on keyboards, guitar, bass and harmonies, Stew offered songs that were at once ridiculous and poignant. Among the new highlights were the whimsical marble-man's lament "Statue Song," the hushed ode to itinerant musician life "Tomorrow Gone" and the folk-flavored, politically charged "Mind the Noose and Fare Thee Well."
The music was a stripped-down, mellowed-out twist on TNP's far-ranging pop influences: the Kinks, the Chi-Lites, Gordon Lightfoot, etc. For all the chuckles Stew elicited, however, his songs reflected an artist profoundly and gleefully engaged with the world, using humor to celebrate and salve all the different-sized ups and downs of life.