Revenge of the Bookeaters, Beacon Theatre, NYC- 8/28
NYC ROLL-TOP: Sweet Revenge
"Truth is the new bullshit," Jon Stewart declared early on the opening night of the Revenge of the Bookeaters tour. The crowd at the Beacon Theater roared, happy to have gotten at least one new maxim for their hefty ticket price, even if it didn't make a whole lotta sense. But who was looking for sense at an event called "Revenge of the Bookeaters"? The rolling literary/musical revue benefited novelist Dave Eggers' 826, which operates creative writing workshops for kids in a half-dozen cities.
Donating their services along with Stewart for the New York debut were literary gadfly (and Apple anti-spokesman) John Hodgman, Assassination Vacation author Sarah Vowell, nu-Christian indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens, ex-Talking Head David Byrne, and others. MCed by the unflappable Hodgman, the night presented the literary mostly on the front half of the program. Stewart and Daily Show producer Ben Karlin read from the forthcoming paperback of the America (The Book). Sarah Vowell presented an essay on cantankerous explorer Charles Pruess with surprise guest monologist Eric Bogosian as Pruess. Eggers introduced a video about 826NYC, narrated slides from a student, and roamed the aisles with a collection bucket (promising a Byrne/Stevens duet if they got another $5,000 in cash, no funny shtuff).
"I think music is over-represented," one audience member — presumably a McSweeney's-head, seeking for some more good narratives — was overheard huffing during intermission. And though she may have been right, it was hard to argue with the musical portion of the night. Stevens, a Brooklynite for several years, was greeted with an adoring cheer. As precocious as ever in cargo pants, button-down shirt, and tie — and precise, moose-mussed hair — Stevens led his band, dressed in similarly casual/not-casual outfits, with the air of a performance at a school assembly. Stevens flatpicked a banjo ("The Mistress Witch from McClure"), stood at a baby grand piano ("Jacksonville"), and played six-string guitar. It was on the latter that he delivered two of his most haunting songs, Seven Swans’ "The Dress Looks Nice On You," and the faith-questioning cancer narrative of Illinoise’s "Casimir Pulaski Day."
Byrne, ever eager to expand his palette, performed an all-country set with his band. Joined by pedal steel player, who provided a soaring counterpoint to Byrne's oddball voice, Byrne opened with Webb Pierce's "There Stands the Glass" (which he'd previously performed in a storage locker for the first issue of Wholphin, McSweeney’s awesomeness-embodied DVD component). Byrne dusted off the requisite Heads obscurities, too, including the almost uncomfortably pro-coastal "The Big Country," and the title track from 1985’s Little Creatures. Byrne’s voice was suited uncommonly well for country, perhaps the next iteration of his genre-jumping.
Fifteen-thousand more dollars raised, as promised, Stevens joined Byrne for a duet encore. Introduced by Byrne as "a song about Michigan [that] Sufjan Stevens didn't write," the two launched into Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan." It was a bit of convergence tailored perfect for McSweeney’s happy-go-lucky approach to the literary form and fortuitous discovery. With the literature and music growing ever closer (at least in this white/upper-middle class/indieish corner of the world), Eggers may have found something. While music may have been over-represented, and truth might still be the new bullshit, everybody can look forward to trying this again next year, or — really — whenever.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.