Hal Willner is the former longtime musical producer for “Saturday Night Live,” but over the years he has also become known as a grand poobah of the kaleidoscopic, ensemble-cast, live-event form, orchestrating tributes to everyone from Charles Mingus to Kurt Weill to Tim Buckley.
His curatorially happy soul — which was, in many ways, inspired by mentor and good friend Allen Ginsberg, Beat poet and literary pitchman for his friends — is what brought Willner to the refurbished United Artists Theatre at Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel on Tuesday night.
The evening was anchored around a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg’s book of poems, “Howl,” and it served as a fundraiser for the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit organization the filmmaker set up to help promote the benefits of transcendental meditation.
Performers included musicians Peaches, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, Van Dyke Parks, Courtney Love, Macy Gray and Devendra Banhart; comedians Amy Poehler, Will Forte and Fred Arimsen; and actors Tim Robbins and Chloe Webb.
“I always jump at the chance of putting together an old-fashioned variety show,” Willner said an hour before show time, his iPad’s text alerts pinging every few seconds.
Willner didn’t stumble upon Ginsberg’s work as an angst-ridden teenager, but rather became friends with the poet by chance in the 1980s after working on some of his music and poetry albums.
“The Beat Generation wasn’t my background,” Willner said. “I met [William S.] Burroughs at ‘Saturday Night Live’ in the early 1980s. Someone offered me this Allen Ginsberg record nobody else wanted, and I produced it. We became friends. Allen ended up changing my life.”
Willner said of these days, “Sometimes I feel I can channel him. And that is what tonight is about: the 60th anniversary of the publication of ‘Howl,’ not a night of poetry readings. There will be some poetry readings, but mostly musical performances and occasional comic relief. And it’s for a good practice, too: meditation.”
Like Ginsberg, Willner’s effortless charm and philosophical musings are hypnotic, and transcend the music producer/conductor hat that he has worn for years. The outpouring of love and affection expressed for him by his collaborators and friends is on the level usually reserved for the likes of spiritual gurus or Nobel laureates.
“Anything Hal Willner asks me to do, I’ll do it,” said Robbins, a musician as well as an actor.
“With Hal Willner productions, it’s not based on who you are, it’s based on what you are,” said Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene. “That’s why I like doing these things, because you get into a room with a bunch of people, under his roof, and there isn’t a bone of pretentiousness in the building because of the way Hal runs things.”
Drew went on to perform two songs with ‘60s Montreal pop and rock icon Andy Kim, including Kim’s top 10 hit for the Archies, “Sugar Sugar,” joined by Love.
Webb met Willner on the set of Alex Cox’s film “Sid & Nancy” (in which she played Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen) almost 30 years ago. His friendship and guidance over the years has brought them back together for over 20 collaborations since 1986, she said.
“Hal does these amazing things where everyone, upon hearing from him, immediately jump in,” Webb said. “It’s hard to describe. But you never want to say no to him.”
Willner joined Webb to deliver a truncated but riveting rendition of “Howl,” the only performance of the evening to receive a unanimous standing ovation.
Matt Piedmont, Willner’s No. 2 and a former “SNL” alum as well, directed Tuesday night’s event, which began with some Ginsberg folk songs, backed by house band the Americans, who stayed on stage throughout the evening in several incarnations, including some with strings.
Though variety shows can tend to drag on, this one — with the exception of Park’s inspired-but-long version of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I am Waiting” — had the feeling of being properly contained. The crowd did begin to dwindle midway through after the intermission.
Comedians like Poehler, Chris Parnell, Arimsen and Forte helped break up the seriousness of traditional poetry readings and musical performances with sing-songy versions of Ginsberg poems, some set to music, which kept the pace moving along like an “SNL” show more than a literary event, especially the closing number — a cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” — with everyone together on stage, arm in arm, waving hands and singing in unison.
Cave and Beth Orton were outstanding and pretty much stole the show as far as stage time and musical performances is concerned. Yet artists like Williams, Eric Dolphy Mingus, Terry Adams, Peaches, and violinist Petra Haden, daughter of the late, great Charlie Haden, delivered inspired set pieces to round out what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime evening that ended up being exactly what Willner billed it as: “a night of music, word, and funny people.”