The official theme of last night’s Happy Ending Music and Reading Series at Joe’s Pub was “taking risks.” Host Amanda Stern credited this idea to musical guests Vampire Weekend, claiming that she’d polled disparate subjects (her landlord, a 311 operator, a physicist, novelists John Wray and Arthur Phillips, who’d both later be reading) and by an unscientific applause-meter, Vampire Weekend’s suggestion prevailed. (The unnamed physicist’s alleged proposal: “Pilates.”) A unifying thread among performers is one of Happy Ending’s revered conceits, and it’s one of the things (besides well-poured goblets of whiskey) that separates this monthly event from the staid Starbucks conventions of, say, made-for-radio scenes like Upstairs at the Square. Other features that make this series special are a strictly enforced time-table that keeps readers sharp, a mandatory cover-song singalong for each musical guest, and the curious propensity to put the likes of, say, me and Zadie Smith in the same room.
If a secondary theme emerged from the evening, it was a false premise. Novelist John Wray read from his recent Lowboy, then offered to unveil a tattoo he’d pretended to have only shown his girlfriend–this was his “risk.” It turned out to be a Sharpie-illustrated backpiece of Michiko Kakutani’s face, dedicated to “KAKUTANI 4 EVAH.” Arthur Phillips, in person a kind of less neurotic Richard Lewis character, declared that he was giving up writing for a life of bullfighting, then stripped down to boxers, donned a matador’s costume, and fake-speared a knee-high, remote-controlled bull. (“The Toro 3000.”) Writer Wells Tower appeared with a plate of “chocolate-chip-and-bacon” cookies and an apocryphal tale of conning airport security into letting this enormous batch of pig-sugar dough on a plane. (Dough isn’t a liquid or a gel, right?) After reading from “Down Through the Valley,” a sadly humorous short story about a man forced into a car-ride with his ex-wife’s new lover from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Tower handed out his cookies. Regrettably, there was no pork flavor.
There was, however, Vampire Weekend. They played first and last, book-ending the authors (“I love that fucking band,” John Wray declared from the stage) and cycling through the VW hits songbook: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “I Stand Corrected,” “M79,” “Oxford Comma,” and a “round-up style” rendition of “Wolcott.” No tattoos, boxer shorts, or fibs for these young men–their perceived “risk” was different instrumentation. Bassist Chris Baio tapped along on snares. Drummer Chris Thomson thumbed a couple of basses. (“Our first-ever performance with an upright bass,” frontman Ezra Koenig noted.) Koenig, last seen (by me) unassumedly playing Checkers at the Dark Was a Night after-party on Sunday, joined Rostam Batmanglij behind a Baldwin.
The night’s last challenge? The time-honored cover-song singalong. At last month’s event, Sam Amidon and Doveman reimagined R. Kelly’s “Relief” and last fall, Koenig made bloglines with his tremendous covers of Blitz and the Descendents. No such leaps this time: we got Tom Petty’s “Walls.” VW drummer Thomson sang along, unmiked, at the top of his lungs–he has totally cranked this tune from the backseat at least 20 times in his life–while Koenig feigned a slight Petty rasp. It was warm, celebratory, and quite excellent. You could even call it–this is my risk, grimace–a happy ending.