As the man who produced one of Allen Ginsberg’s last recorded works — and who virtually invented the tribute album as standalone art form — the record producer (and current music producer of “Saturday Night Live”) Hal Willner was truly the only person who could have put together last night’s celebration of the Beat poet’s masterpiece, “Howl,” at the Ace in Downtown Los Angeles. Willner assembled a glittering line-up for the event, a three-hour-plus evening of “music, verse and funny people” to benefit the David Lynch Foundation: those featured included Nick Cave (the first person he called), Beth Orton and her husband Sam Amidon, Courtney Love, Macy Gray, Lucinda Williams, Tim Robbins, Van Dyke Parks and a handful of “SNL” alums. “In the ’60s, this was called a ‘Happening’ — a bunch of people in the same room that you would never see in the same room,” Willner said. “We’re just missing a plate spinner!”
Ginsberg’s passionate and playful spirit animated all the performances, from Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell’s rapped “Battle of the Skeletons” to Devendra Banhart’s rousing rendition of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan’s “Vomit Express,” featuring a gaggle of backup singers, one of whom was dancing precariously in a papier-mâché bull’s head. The unlikely pairing of Will Forte and Peaches produced one of the show’s most engaging bits, with their frenetic, free-jazz version of “Birdbrain,” a punk song Ginsberg recorded in 1981. “All comedians seem to want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be comedians,” noted the show’s director, Matt Piedmont.
And as for the rock stars: A solo Nick Cave on piano filled the theater with his soulful version of “Mercy Seat”; Courtney Love — no stranger to howling — brought all her rock-star might to the Hole song “Letter to God”; and Lucinda Williams sang “Pale Blue Eyes” with sweet-and-salty charm. Petra Haden’s soaring interpretation of “Father Death Blues” had been suggested by Willner as a tribute to her father Charlie Haden, who passed away last summer. “Every time I sing something for my dad, I feel him,” Haden said. “So I felt his presence there; it was really nice.”
By the time Willner and his regular collaborator Chloe Webb (“Sid and Nancy”) began reciting the incantatory verses, which Ginsberg first performed 60 years ago in October, the audience was primed. When they came to the section celebrating “Holy Kerouac” and “Holy Cassady,” whoops started erupting; the finish brought the crowd to its feet. “I just love that line about ‘Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion,’” said Webb later, holding her dog in her arms in the packed backstage area. “We need to step up!”