Last night at New York's Beacon Theater, author and cultural figure Dave Eggers kicked off the first in a series of traveling benefit concerts, cryptically titled the "Revenge of the Bookeaters" tour. Jon Stewart, David Byrne and indie-rock hero Sufjan Stevens joined Eggers for the first installment of the high-profile roadshow. (The cross-country trek will feature a rotating roster of talent, including Jenny Lewis, Ben Gibbard, Jake Gyllenhaal and Aimee Mann.) The seven-date Bookeaters tour aims to raise money for the New York branch of Eggers' nonprofit tutoring program, 826NYC, an organization that offers free writing and tutoring workshops for kids ages six to eighteen. (In 2002, Eggers created a San Francisco organization, 826 Valencia, on which 826NYC is modelled.)
While the show posed the playful -- and presumably rhetorical -- question: "Words or Music - Which Is Better?" there was little to contest during the near three-hour evening of music, readings and earnest appeals for donations. The always reliable Jon Stewart kicked things off with some chatter and, later, readings from his book, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. Stewart's characteristically wry political commentary was in full effect as he offered a slew of false revelations -- including this bit of musical trivia: The original name of the national anthem was "The Heat 'Tis On the Streets."
After some mid-show appeals for cash, including an extended bit where collection buckets were passed through the crowd by Eggers himself, the music began. First Seattle-based folkie John Roderick played a short set of acoustic ditties that were lyrically overstuffed and literary, if not especially memorable.
Next, Sufjan Stevens, toast of the indie world (and quite a pedant himself), walked onstage with a six-piece band, including a trumpet player, violinist and a trombone player. Stevens' music -- with his sweet, breathy voice and stylized tunes -- can sometimes border on precious, but Wednesday night, he demonstrated a more reserved and mature sound. Tracks from his latest album, Illinois, including "Jackson," built around a trickle of piano and fritters of brass, translated as cool and restrained but utterly expert.
Closing the evening, David Byrne and his crack four-piece band played what the singer called a "country set," including obscure covers and two Talking Heads songs. Byrne and company nailed the searing "The Big Country," with its vitriolic refrain and closing staccato guitar flare-up, and invested the plangent "Give Me No Flowers" with lovely urgency, courtesy of some gorgeous pedal steel.
As a final bonus, the evening's emcee, writer John Hodgman promised the crowd that if fans successfully raised $5,000 during the mid-show pledge drive, Byrne and Stevens would share the stage. Well, after more than tripling the requested sum, the duo treated fans to a low-key, lyrical duet of Bill Anderson's "Saginaw, Michigan," trading verses with aplomb. It was the sweet, perfect moment that left everybody -- authors, musicians and audience members -- feeling as if they left winning.
For more information about the tour, visit: www.bookeaters.org.