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Concert Review: 826LA with Zooey Deschanel, Julie Buxbaum & Paul F. Tompkins @ Largo 2/16/08

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As far as live variety shows go, it doesn't get much better than the 826LA Book*Smart events at Largo. The event, which usually takes place once a month, features an author, a comedian and a musician. Saturday's event centered around headliner Zooey Deschanel, who blew the audience away with her vocal chops and helped raise funds for 826LA with sewn duck heads (it'll make sense as you keep reading).

Seating was at a premium, and for the first time in my experience, Largo even allowed some people to sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. The popularity of the event was also evident in the caliber of those in attendance--musicians like Jenny Lewis and Tennessee Thomas were there just to enjoy the show.

826LA executive director Mac Barnett served as the emcee throughout the evening and did a great job of acquainting everyone with the organization. He explained that one of the great things about Book*Smart is that all the money raised goes toward 826LA's tutoring locations in Venice and Echo Park.

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Since 826LA encourages kids ages 6-18 to explore creative writing, Barnett treated the audience to two stories written by 826LA kids. One of the stories was called “Leppy’s Love,” which depicted a leopard-chasing cheetah who falls in love with another cheetah but has to contend with her disapproving mother. The adorableness reached its height with the line: “You make my spots stay on.”

The first guest to take the stage was author Julie Buxbaum, whose first novel, The Opposite of Love, has just been released. She read three short excerpts from the book, which proved to be witty, edgy and funny—such as one scene depicting her protagonist’s passive-aggressive responses to people she encounters during a very bad day. It captured my interest enough that I purchased a copy later in the evening.


Zooey Deschanel singing in Elf

Next up was Zooey Deschanel. Although she has showcased her vocal skills in movies like Elf and as a guest vocalist on albums with Ben Lee and Coconut Records, she is set to release her first full-length album next month with collaborator M. Ward. Under the name She & Him, Deschanel and Ward will release “Volume 1” on March 18. It will include nine songs by Deschanel along with two covers (“I Should Have Known Better” by the Beatles and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson).

Deschanel took the stage with keyboardist Dave Palmer, and began with a sultry “Moon River.” The set was comprised of mostly standards—plus one original—and included “Ain’t Misbehavin,” Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” and “I Put a Spell on You.” The gal’s got some pipes.

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It’s refreshing to see jazz/cabaret-type singers pop up more and more in LA clubs. With Deschanel and others such as Maude Maggart leading the charge, I can’t wait to see more.

Deschanel seemed at ease on the stage—at one point she pulled out a mini banjo, sat down on a stool in her floor-length evening gown, crossed her legs, and proceeded to strum and sing (with accompaniment by Palmer on a melodica wind piano). There were also some hilarious quirky moments, such as when she looked at her hand to remember some lyrics, and when she tried to move a stool and accidentally popped the top off of it.

As if often the case, 826LA auctioned off some artist-donated items last night, with all tax-deductible funds going toward the mentoring program. Rather than just bringing, say, an autographed photo, Deschanel actually sewed three items. My favorite was a jagged-edged piece of fabric with a knit duck in the middle and the word “friendly” beneath it. Deschanel explained that she messed up the first time she tried to sew it, so there was a floating duck head on one of the edges of the fabric. The handicrafts sold for nearly $300.

The final act of the evening was Paul F. Tompkins, who told some hilarious stories about working in stores called “Hats in the Belfry” and “Beta Only.” He concluded his set by doing a bit that was a wry complement to the kids’ stories that Barnett had read earlier in the evening: stories written by the elderly.

To cap off the evening, Barnett brought Deschanel and Palmer back on stage and auctioned off a final song in which three people pledged $100 each for her to perform “Till There Was You.” It was so worth the $300, plus it all went toward supporting an amazing cause. I’m already looking forward to a kid-penned Leppy sequel—perhaps a story about an elephant named Giraffey.

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The next Book*Smart event will take place on March 15 and more information will probably be up on the Largo schedule soon. To view upcoming 826LA events, make a donation, or sign up as a volunteer, visit www.826la.com.

Special thanks to Julie Wolfson

Since Largo does not allow recording, the first YouTube clip is from an earlier She & Him performance.