By Zach Baron
“It touched my heart. It touched my soul.” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James was the first performer at Sunday night’s “Revenge of the Book Eaters” to mention 826NYC, the nonprofit tutoring organization for which “Book Eaters” was a benefit. But if earlier acts failed to mention the reason they were there, their behavior — relaxed, corny; “adult contemporary night here at the Beacon,” said Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew — betrayed it anyway. As Jon Dolan once wrote in these pages, “the vicissitudes of Meaning” are a problem for these bands, the honest-indie-falsetto set, because where they’re from (the left, the middle class, Canada), they were taught Meaning was their burden.
No shortage of it at the Beacon Theater though: a benefit for a writing skills tutoring agency whose doors are open free of charge to any student in the city, staffed and funded by Dave Eggers and cash floating loose from the McSweeney’s publishing concern, staged amidst tiers at the Beacon Theater. Call it a night off for “Book Eaters” roster — Feist, Britt Daniel, A.C. Newman, Jim James, Grizzly Bear, This American Life’s Sarah Vowell, and host Demetri Martin — because for once none of them had to wonder if they were doing the right thing in the right town at the right time.
Neither did anyone in the audience — an explanation maybe for the enraptured cheers that rained down on the acts between songs. The joke — there were a lot of jokes — subtitle for the event read: “A show that reminds you of the eternal question: Words or Music — which is better?” Neither won; say what you will about the Believer, McSweeneys, Eggers, 826NYC (and 826LA), but these are people who fully recognize the equal validity and blurry edges among the comic art, visual art, fiction, nonfiction, film, video, music, etc they cover. If anything their tastes run too literate: what the Beacon could have maybe used was a bit less culture, not still more of it.
When Grizzly Bear stretched it out they covered “Graceland”; the only song I caught by the opening act (A.C. Newman?) was a King Missile cover of “a love song about being devoured by wolves”; Jim James’ gesture at discord was to shrug at his Christian rep: “Some people think this song is about god, but it’s not.” Then again, you also forget there’s a subspecies of rock bands whose singers can really sing. James is the most demonstrative about it — it’s what’s got My Morning Jacket their rep as live gods, I think; never seen em — but, for instance, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor is so undemonstrative with his own falsetto that you could spend their whole set wondering where that impossibly high-pitched noise was coming from.
One possible explanation here for the whole Feist=Starbuck equation, which I admit to being way more familiar with than any of her albums: a), charisma, which she has, e.g. her charming reading of a couple stories from the 826 program, and b) the very specific manner in which she sings, which at Beacon took the form of a kind of icy enunciation that seemed to exist in a small pocket of space she drew around herself for the occasion. If nothing else her music has the illusion of intimacy, and what moves product quicker than that?
Sitting down in the upper deck, the action below was more vaudeville or variety show than club thing — amazing how the introduction of the slightest difference in occasion and tone makes all kinds of performers regular people again. At the end, Demetri Martin called all the bands back onstage for a “we-are-the-world, but without a song” encore, and no one even tried to bow.