On Tuesday night, Los Angeles’ Theater at the Ace Hotel saw a massive convergence of counterculture icons, as Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Love and more paid tribute to Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl” on its 60th anniversary, all to benefit the David Lynch Foundation.
While Ginsberg and Lynch might have the biggest name recognition, several of the performers made clear they were there first and foremost for producer Hal Willner, the visionary who conceived of and executed the more than three-hour performance.
“I just want to thank the great and wonderfully gifted Hal Willner for putting this together,” Love said before her impassioned performance of “Letter to God.” “I’ve known him since 1985, and I consider him one of my top five people I’ve ever met.”
Williams echoed those sentiments, saying before her mesmerizing first-half set of “When I Look at the World” and the bluesy “Unsuffer Me”: “Anything Hal does, I want to be there.”
Willner, who recently produced Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, which featured everyone from Bono and Sting to Williams and the late Lou Reed, has been producing live events since the late ’90s, and those who’ve been fortunate enough to see his eclectic performances know they can expect the same at every Willner concert: truly inspired moments and very long nights.
This one held true to that formula, with some crazy moments that could only come true at a Willner event. An early highlight was Saturday Night Live alums Chris Parnell and Amy Poehler mixing rap and poetry on Ginsberg’s “Ballad of the Skeletons” with some hilarious side bits, including Poehler’s weirdly inopportune and funny commercial for Sirius Radio and Parnell delivering the line of the night as he blasted MTV. Talking about those who watch the channel, he quipped, “No judgment, if you like to watch live abortions.”
Opening the night as emcee, Broken Social Scene‘s Kevin Drew had promised the night wouldn’t be a highbrow event, and he was right, as comedy — with nothing spared — proved a big part of the show, with standup comic John Mulaney performing a bit during a changeover and Last Man on Earth’s Will Forte appearing a couple of times, including once in a collaborative performance with Peaches as the two read Ginsberg’s “Birdbrain.”
Of course this is a Willner event, so there were also moments of cerebral nirvana, like Van Dyke Parks reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” backed by a string section. And later in the night, NRBQ’s Terry Adams performed some Thelonious Monk.
The one artist who was able to bridge all the different elements was the unquestioned biggest draw of the night: Nick Cave. Seated at the piano during his first-half performance, Cave absolutely owned the room with a riveting version of “The Mercy Seat,” followed by what he called a different kind of song, the gorgeous “Love Letter.” Leaving to a huge ovation, Cave promised, “I’ll be back later.”
Many of the artists, including Petra Haden and Sam Amidon, made multiple appearances, as did Williams, who appeared late in the night to perform a cover of the Velvet Underground‘s “Pale Blue Eyes.” “We’re just winging it at this point,” she said. That was clear.
By that point, Willner and Chloe Webb had already read “Howl,” earning the only standing ovation of the night for their dazzling performance, one that saw the seminal work accompanied by a video that transported the audience to 1950s San Francisco and a rising musical arrangement that perfectly synched with the building drama in their reading.
That should’ve ended the night, but those who managed to make it all the way to the end — Macy Gray, the last new performer of the night, called all those who did stay “troupers” — were rewarded with a jaw-dropping gorgeous finale of Cave and Beth Orton performing “The Ship Song” together.
Yes, it was a long night, but any event that ends with Nick Cave and Beth Orton duetting is one we want to be part of. Or, to paraphrase Williams, “Anything Hal does, we want to be there.”