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article imageTwo producers, one concert, many surprises Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jun 6, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Hal Willner is known for his creative music explorations, both on albums and live onstage. Having produced concerts honoring Neil Young, Harry Smith, and Leonard Cohen, Willner now turns his sights to award-winning musician/producer Daniel Lanois.
Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed: The Music of Daniel Lanois will be presented in Toronto as part of the annual Luminato Festival on June 10th. With a varied lineup featuring Emmylou Harris, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Martha Wainwright, Bill Frisell, and Trixie Whitley (among many others), the evening will feature both original Lanois compositions, as well as music from other artists he’s produced for.
"You can't deny his talent," Willner says of Lanois, "it’s filled with these beautiful songs, and his production has its own sound."
Willner is known for his bonafide music world credentials, having worked with a wide array of artists including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Marianne Faithfull, William S. Burroughs, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Concurrent to being music supervisor for Saturday Night Live, Willner also collaborated extensively with director Robert Altman, and has been music supervisor for a number of movies, including Finding Forrester and Talladega Nights. Willner produced the soundtrack to Stormy Weather, a biopic about Harold Arlen, and produced a live tribute concert to Tim Buckley, a concert which ultimately launched the career of Tim’s son, Jeff Buckley. Among the many artist-centric evenings Willner has curated and produced (including ones for Harry Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young), Willner produced an evening of music at Carnegie Hall in 2009 to celebrate Irish artist Gavin Friday’s 50th birthday; it featured a range of musicians including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Courtney Love, Andrea Corr, Maria McKee, members of U2, Scarlett Johansson, Rufus Wainwright, and and a rousing onstage reunion with the surviving members of Friday’s theatrical 1970s/80s band The Virgin Prunes.
Willner has also produced pirate-themed concert events and albums (2006’s Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys and 2013’s Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, which featured Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, and Keith Richards, among others) and has released one album under his own name, 1998’s Whoops, I’m an Indian!, on DJ/producer Howie B’s Pussyfoot Records, which features audio samples from 78 rpm records from the early-mid 20th century.
Willner told CBC Music last year about the joy he experiences in producing with such varied artists. “My favourite thing to do is when you have a room with a lot of artists who, especially these days, wouldn’t even be in the same room and collaborating on a similar subject matter. You’re watching new music happen. You’re watching things you never would have seen before. ”
Willner s talent for recognizing artistically interesting combinations is one originating in his you...
Willner's talent for recognizing artistically interesting combinations is one originating in his youth. “I grew up at the tail-end of where that was very normal,” the 57 year-old producer says, “you know, let’s call it music-as-vaudeville, when records became an art form in the same way literature, and art, and movies were, and the variety shows on TV: you had Dr. John next to Miles Davis next to Buffalo Springfield.”
Lou Reed
Working in the 1970s with celebrated record producer Joel Dorn, Willner was exposed to a number of sonically creative ideas, further entrenching his belief in both the power of experimentation and the magic of unique pairings. “My first day there (working for Dorn), we were recording Jimmy Scott and Yusef Lateef!” he recalls. “A lot of the producers worked in that framework; they’d cast a project. It was sort of a continuation of what kind of records weren’t being made anymore … I was around a lot of amazing things where I got to see unlikely combinations.”
It’s this eclecticism that has lead him to create some of the most memorable of live concerts, among them Came So Far for Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs, which featured a wide swath of artists (Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton, Lou Reed) paying tribute to the Montreal-born bard. Frieze Magazine describes Willner’s role in such concerts as “that of genial host who makes sure the awkward or shy guests get along.”
Placing unknown artists with established ones is a good thing for music and for audiences, Willner says. “What excites me is bringing out people the audience doesn’t know,” he explains. “Sometimes the best performances are by (artists) who don’t come with any expectations attached to the. At the Leonard Cohen show, we brought in Antony (Hegarty), who hadn’t put his album out yet, and people were like, ‘What is this?!’ They hadn’t heard of him, but the minute he opened his mouth, you saw lives change in front of you. Music is probably the most powerful thing ever created.”
Willner worked with Lanois to produce the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ 2000 film The Million Dollar Hotel (Island), which featured a wide array of musicians; in addition to members of U2 (Bono penned the original story for the film), the soundtrack featured an assortment of talented musicians and personalities, including jazz greats Brad Mehldau and Bill Frisell, the film’s principal actress Milla Jovovich (covering Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”), as well as Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. The result, a moodily noir collection of pieces, makes for some haunting late-night listening.
“It’s a weird thing with record producers and each other, and that was the weirdest gig,” Willner remembers. “You had five people on the room, each of whom could’ve done (producing) on their own. It was … like, let’s negotiate the Middle East! They each had different approaches.”
Lanois certainly has his own approach, and his very own unique sound, producing such popular albums as Peter Gabriel’s So, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, Neil Young’s Le Noise, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, and, alongside co-producer Brian Eno, a raft of U2 albums including The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. He also did the soundtrack to the 1996 film Sling Blade and provided an instrumental score for the 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud, about the Pixies.
Lanois is admired just as much for his own work, including 1989’s beautiful, folk-ringed Acadie, containing the exquisite, hymn-like “The Maker” and the poetic, semi-autobiographical “Jolie Louise.” He recently commented to The Globe & Mail, I had put so much work into other people’s records; I poured my soul into everything I ever did. So when I made my own album, I think the stone had been thrown in the water so many times that the ripple finally came back to me. And when it came back, it was speaking the truth.
Lanois went on to release almost a dozen more solo albums while keeping up a hectic producing schedule. In 2005, he was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame; in 2012, Lanois entered the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, and in 2013, he received a lifetime achievement award at the prestigious Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. His energetic, hard-driving, blues-rock project Black Dub was introduced to Toronto audiences in 2010 at his “Later That Night At The Drive-In” multimedia installation, which included a rousing all-night set at City Hall as part of the city’s popular annual Nuit Blanche art event.
In putting the Lanois show together  Willner says “this is a challenge  the producer honouring ano...
In putting the Lanois show together, Willner says “this is a challenge, the producer honouring another producer. But how cool is that? Let’s have a go… there’s a chance it’ll be the greatest show you’ve ever seen, and there’s the chance it won’t work at all. There’s the danger aspect Safe, I’m always bored by.”
Adam Vollick
The material being presented at Sleeping in the Devil's Bed will be made up of both Lanois’ original compositions and the work he’s produced for others. Willner has made song suggestions songs to performers, but has been taking in their ideas, too. He won’t give specifics, but he says there could be “one or two from the Dylan record, one or two from U2, a few from Emmylou. We’re structuring it like one of the records."
One thing is for sure: there's going to be a script. "I learned this the hard way: we have to work with a script, if you start with the artist, you end up with a six-hour show.”
So while the particulars of the evening are shrouded in secrecy, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some form in place. While bits of Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed will be familiar, “some of it will sound unrecognizable. We’re taking a weird kind of journey, an exploration [...] we know the music we’re looking at is great. The people starring in this, the combination is unbelievably exciting. It’s not a bunch of superstars, it’s people you know, and people you don’t know.”
Despite Variety's declaration that "(n)o one puts on a better tribute concert than Hal Willner,“ the man himself doesn't like the term.
"I never really call them tributes,” Willner says jovially, “that sounds like a funeral to me! It’s taking a body of work that has to be a great body of work, and seeing how far it can go.”
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