On Wednesday night, at the start of Stew & Heidi Rodewald’s new song cycle, Brooklyn Omnibus, Stew cracked a joke that he was happy to be finally performing the show, since rehearsing is no fun.
By the end, I wished he had spent more time in rehearsals.
Figuratively and literally, the songs are meant to take you on a ride through Brooklyn, since Brooklyn Omnibus is actually the name of a car service of Stew and Rodewald’s own making, where the wait is always 5 minutes, and the drivers do not actually take you anywhere, but hand you a pair of headphones instead.
The journey begins as Stew and the amazing, stunning singer Eisa Davis go back and forth about moving out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn, over a chorus that softly chimes, “Baby there’s black people in Fort Greene”–one of many lines that got a good chuckle from the crowd at BAM’s Harvey Theater. She’s the reluctant transplant, he’s sick of Gotham, but when he learns she’s off the pill, that seals the deal. If they want kids, they’re moving to Brooklyn.
Here, fans of Stew—and I am one—are reminded of his signature wit and the songwriting sparks that fly between him and Rodewald. Each song speaks to some classic Brooklyn experience or archetype: arriving here from Manhattan, crossing the bridge (pick one), taking the G-Train, Bushwick hipsters and artists, the Park Slope Mom, Fulton Mall, gentrification, Coney Island. Some of these lyrical stories are just too generic, but when Stew abandons the cliches, things get really interesting. His song about gentrification, for instance, is about a white guy in black face who mugs people at gunpoint to keep the rents down in his adopted hood of Bed-Stuy. It’s a ridiculous concept, but it’s original and funny, and it keeps you tuned in.
The talent and power of the musicians he’s assembled for this musical tale is palpable, especially in songs like “Mr. Johnson (Coney Island)” and “Sexy Brooklyn Mami,” which has riffs that are reminiscent of the B-52s, circa “Rock Lobster.”
A smooth, jammy interlude—the Omnibus car service’s hold music—reminds us we’re on a ride through Stew and Rodewald’s own strange vision of Brooklyn. But by the last three songs the trip gets hijacked, as the lyrics begin to feel generic. The street scenes projected on stage don’t do the songs any real justice, either. When 7th Avenue is referenced, we’re shown a reel of Union Street with the Park Slope Food Coop as a backdrop. During a song about unrequited love in Bushwick, we see a scrolling Mega Millions sign fading in and out of images of the Brooklyn Bridge. I should qualify this critique by saying that I couldn’t help but compare Omnibus’s projections to Sufjan Stevens’ BQE, which was the last ode to Brooklyn at BAM, and a serious, visual treat. They’re two different beasts—Stevens billed his as a cinematic suite—but ultimately, when you create a song cycle as hyperlocal as Brooklyn Obmnibus, it’s natural to expect the visuals to be just as nuanced.
And really, for anyone who loved Passing Strange, it’s natural just to expect MORE.
And yet, maybe that’s the wrong tack. If you identify with this place so deeply that you get sentimental when there’s a storefront change, or feel a pang when you walk down a particular street, there is something magical about hearing it referenced in music, however spot on it may or may not be. Stew cracked another joke about how hard it would be to perform the songs commissioned for this piece on tour. How would “Sexy Brooklyn Mami” go over in Seattle? Would anyone else identify with it, except for this crowd, in this one place? Probably not, and that alone makes Brooklyn Omnibus seeing, before it moves on.
Brooklyn Omnibus runs tonight and tomorrow at BAM Harvey Theater. The ticket code 12657 is valid through today, for 25% off tomorrow’s show.