When confronted with Apple’s new “PC vs. Mac” ads—the bumbling, hapless, stiff-suited chump playing the problematic PC and a calm, casual, hyperconfident Everydude portraying the far superior Mac—most people do the sensible thing: They gravitate toward the chump. He’s funnier, warmer, more believable. Sure, the Mac guy can podcast and mack on Japanese chicks and shoot SCUD missiles or whatever, but he’s gotta be such a smug asshole about it. As an ad campaign, it’s a colossal backfire; as a cultural signifier, it’s quite instructive. Incompetence is often preferable to smarmy excellence.
Odd then to behold the guy playing the PC chump—Daily Show luminary and lit humorist John Hodgman—emceeing a benefit hoedown firmly by and for the oft-smarmy Mac crowd Wednesday night at the Beacon Theatre. Sarah Vowell and Jon Stewart (the latter armed with Mel Gibson jokes) read. Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne (the former armed with, inevitably, a fucking banjo) played. And mastermind Dave Eggers hawked the evening’s good cause: his steadily multiplying franchise of 826 writing centers (including Brooklyn’s) that tutor young Turks in the fine art of writing heartbreaking works of staggering genius. The humor portion of this “Words vs. Music” bill meets your expectations for this kinda crowd— incredibly wry, mostly high-brow, pretty corny, occasionally . . . funny. You gotta admire how Eggers has perfected this tone: rampant precociousness cloaked in unassailable good intentions. He used a slide projector to showcase the work of one young 826 kid, goofy collages of jazz-enthusiast robots and such that were actually the funniest part of the whole night, and not even in an “awwwww how cute” way—he was infinitely better at the whole deadpan awkward surrealist childlike thing, primarily because he was an actual child.
This tone works as literature and humor but can be toxic when it fuels already overly mannered and delicate and clever indie rock. Ask our first musical attraction, Long Winters frontman John Roderick. “Indie-rock culture is the real ghetto of people who have convinced themselves that they’re too sensitive to be yelled at or to yell, and they cry real tears when they see a flower lose its petals,” he told Eggers-offshoot literary mag The Believer last year. “Those people belong in institutions. They should be in a really soft antiallergenic bed, and have people bring them tea that isn’t brewed too strong. Life is better with a little conflict.”
So there’s John onstage, playing to several more thousand people than he is perhaps accustomed, singing gorgeous grad-school folk ballads in a high, keening voice, but also looking a bit menacing at six-foot-plus, lumbering around like he’d wandered in between bar fights. He noted that he’d bumped into Sufjan and his crowd of prim and proper accompanists backstage—”They seem happy and full of life, and their clothes fit so well.” The crowd was clearly unnerved. Was this a compliment? Is this guy gonna beat someone up?
He played three songs. Should’ve played 30.
Sufjan and his daisy Mafia played five. Should’ve played . . . well, actually, five’s about right. You gotta admire the intricacy and anthemic power of his best tunes—”Chicago” especially. And he doesn’t force his backing crew of horns and violins and tambourines to dress like cheerleaders anymore, thank God. But there’s still no threat of his beating anyone up. Too bad. His tunes are little dollhouses of orchestral splendor, ingeniously complex but emotionally distant. Model railroad vistas with no actual locomotion. Tea that isn’t brewed too strong. His last tune was entitled “That Dress Looks Nice on You.” Right.
But David Byrne! David Byrne! Given that the Talking Heads concert flick Stop Making Sense is the audio-visual zenith of the 20th century, it’s great to see that he’s still got some of that unnerving magic, lithe and lanky and rubbery, his hair a shock of gray, his operatic Gumby voice as powerful and anxious as ever. With four good ol’ boys behind him, he announced that this was a country set . . . uh, alright, sure, Dave. Two Talking Heads tunes though, both already half-country in their original iterations, and both quite appropriate for the occasion. “Creatures of Love” is a perfect faux-childlike deadpan ballad, an ode to coitus so basic an 826 tyke could’ve written it: “A woman made a man/And a man he made a house/And when they lay together/Little creatures all come out/Well I’ve seen sex and I think it’s alright.”
But the other tune was the killer. “The Big Country” is my favorite song that violently denigrates my Midwestern upbringing. The ultimate flyover-country diss track. Over a loping, pedal steel shuffle—and in that same shell-shocked, matter-of-fact tone—Byrne flies overhead and gazes down on rural-to-suburban splendor: “I guess it’s healthy/I guess the air is clean/I guess those people/Have fun with their neighbors and friends/Look at that kitchen/And all of that food/Look at them eat/I guess it tastes real good.” Sounds delightful.
Chorus: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
Introducing the tune at the Beacon, Byrne noted the disparity between the bucolic verses and the hostile chorus but pretended not to understand why he’d mashed them together: “I don’t have an answer,” he shrugged. Because that’s how you goose the weak-tea crowd, start a bar fight, smash the fucking banjo over someone’s head, and transcend the arms-length cleverness of the indie-rock ghetto Roderick despises. Get in the ring, motherfucker! If Sufjan had bounded back out with an answer track depicting a flyover-country punk sneering at NYC self-entitlement—now that’s Illinoise worth feeling. Instead, he shyly shuffled out for a duet of Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan.” MP3 blog enthusiasts can already tell you this sucked, awkward and meek, with Sufjan struggling to contain his (for once) wobbly, clearly overwhelmed croon. Good for him, though, for trying out a bit of PC futility to offset his usual overly competent Macness.
Probably a few folks at this gig set out the next night for McCarren Park Pool, this summer’s designated zeitgeist venue, hosting a show headlined by Neko Case and opened by the outstanding Martha Wainwright but ultimately stolen by Joanna Newsom, an outrageously polarizing harp goddess who sings incredibly long—her upcoming new record, Ys, which is pronounced “Blearrrrrgh,” is about an hour long and has five tracks—and incredibly intricate lullabies for past, present, and future acid casualties. It’s undoubtedly mesmerizing, whether you’re a superfan swooning at wide-eyed lyrical imagery like “a tuneless hound dog choking on a feather” or an ardent detractor wincing at her voice and observing that it can sometimes sound like, well, uh, that. Not to sneeze on anyone’s pillow or anything, but both Joanna and Sufjan are massively talented and even more massively ambitious, building whole empires of intricate magical realism, breathtaking to regard from overhead, but strangely static the closer you get to the ground, lacking the danger and hostility inherent in actual places containing acutal people feeling actual emotions. I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.