Banding Together

Andrew Hultkrans on a benefit for 826NYC

New York

Left: David Byrne. Right: Sufjan Stevens, David Byrne, Eric Bogosian, Dave Eggers, Ben Karlin, Sarah Vowell, and John Roderick. (All photos: Jennifer Snow)

Luckily, it was an unseasonably cool August night, or the Coalition Provisional Authority treatment attendees received outside the Beacon Theater last week would have thoroughly scotched the vibe of an otherwise benign benefit. Given that will-call lines largely consist of friends and press, putting only one incompetent woman in the booth—protected by clueless gorillas—is sinful. The upshot? Many missed the first twenty minutes of the fundraiser for 826NYC, the local branch of 826 Valencia, a chain of free tutoring centers across the country that help children develop their creative writing skills. Founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco (the name is its Mission District street address), 826 now has locations in Brooklyn, Seattle, LA, Chicago, and Ann Arbor, often with whimsical storefront themes like “Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.” and useless-but-fun merchandise that furthers the theme and allows the nonprofit to get around retail zoning laws.

As I entered the darkened Beacon, I saw that it was a full house, and the laughter emanating from the crowd for Jon Stewart, the first act, told me there was a lot of love in the room. Stewart, reading from his best-selling book about America, was periodically interrupted by an older man to his left. The man was Ben Karlin, executive producer of The Daily Show and coauthor of America: The Book, playing the part of an American-history professor, there to add punch to Stewart’s slightly warmed-over routine by correcting him on incorrect assertions in the book. This went over well. The crowd—white twenty-through-thirtysomethings, devotees of NPR and The Onion—equally enjoyed Stewart’s original satire and the spectacle of a brilliant political gadfly being held to the facts.

John Hodgman (The Areas of My Expertise author and Daily Show contributor) and musician Jonathan Coulton then took the podium. Hodgman, a former high school debate champ if I ever saw one, wore a conservative suit. Coulton wore a perilously large coonskin cap and wielded an acoustic guitar. They introduced a goateed Eggers, who delivered some impromptu comments about 826 and thanked the crowd for coming. A newly prepared video about 826 was charming, and a subsequent slide show featured some wonderfully disturbing collages by Alex, a prize student at the Brooklyn location, that involve Jessica Simpson traveling to other dimensions, and some strangely transmogrified men and animals. Alex will surely give Elizabeth Peyton a run for her money someday.

Left: John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell. Right: Sufjan Stevens.

Next up were the musicians, starting with Long Winters frontman John Roderick, a Seattle songwriter who looks every bit the beefy northwestern logger. Roderick is known for his wry, writerly lyrics, and in the three songs he played, his booming voice made the most of them, stretching his vowels to the breaking point. He is, perhaps, the burliest sensitive singer-songwriter I’ve ever seen—Hodgman called him a “hulking man-beast”—and I suspect he won more than a few new fans with his performance.

Then, boy wonder Sufjan Stevens took the stage with banjo, piano, and several horn and string players. Given the audience response, it seemed that he was the biggest draw on the bill. A tiny indie-Christian songwriter, Stevens is on a quixotic quest to record an album about each of the fifty states; his entries on Michigan and Illinois have already met with high critical acclaim. He and his band played several winsome chamber-pop songs, and I sympathized as he counted beats on his thigh to keep himself grounded in his odd time signatures. He also talked about a memorable writing teacher from his elementary school and the novel he wrote at age ten or so. Somebody give the kid a MacArthur.

The lights came up for an intermission, which was really an excuse for Eggers and his minions to pass the hat for further cash donations. Hodgman and Sarah Vowell stood at the podium, joking about how déclassé it was to have punters pony up for a benefit ticket and then hit them for more cash once they were in their seats. But this questionable move required no ironic self-abasement. The crowd gladly handed over twenties (for a hug from Eggers) and hundreds (in hopes of winning superhero gizmos). As I said, there was a lot of love in the room. And yes, I gave.

After roughly $15,000 was gathered and Coulton sang a couple verses of “Oh Death,” the lights dimmed for Vowell, who introduced surprise guest Eric Bogosian to help her read a newly finished comic essay centered on the dispirited diary entries of a real-life explorer/cartographer of the American West. Vowell’s piece received big applause and neatly furthered the theme explored by most of the evening’s performers—the dark, wacky America. Who better, then, to cap off this event than Mr. True Stories himself, David Byrne? A longtime supporter of Eggers, having published two books with McSweeney’s, Byrne emerged with a Jim Jarmusch–like shock of white hair and a postmodern Nehru jacket to deliver a “country set,” including versions of some later Talking Heads songs, backed by a small band. The crowd ate it up, Byrne receiving as much applause as Stevens. It’s appropriate, then, that he closed the circle by inviting Stevens back onstage for a rollicking duet on a Lefty Frizzell song about Saginaw, MI. I would have preferred “Jackson,” with Stevens as June Carter, but, as with the rest of this unusual, disarming benefit, it seems churlish to quibble.