Friday, January 1, 2010

Article: On the good ship Willner : Todd in Australia

On the good ship Willner

Iain Shedden From: The Australian January 02, 2010 12:00AM Increase Text Size Decrease Text Size Print Email Share Add to Digg Add to Add to Facebook Add to Kwoff Add to Myspace Add to Newsvine What are these?
IT'S a mouth-watering prospect, setting sail in the company of Marianne Faithfull, Todd Rundgren, Sarah Blasko and David Johansen. At worst you'd be able to get a song out of them to help pass the time. You could share a yo ho ho and a bottle of chardonnay with some of the other shipmates as well: American actor Tim Robbins, perhaps, or Little Birdy's Katy Steele or Glenn Richards from Augie March.

Those are just some of the artists who will gather on the forecourt of Sydney Opera House on January 28 to embrace tales of longing, fornication and salty air, the core ingredients that make up the poetry and motion of a traditional sea shanty.

Rogue's Gallery is the name of the show, and the man who put together this unlikely crew for what is a one-off Sydney Festival performance is American Hal Willner, producer of the star-studded and critically lauded Rogue's Gallery double album of seafaring rants from 2006. The collection of bawdy and beautiful ballads and frisky folk songs gave Bono, Sting, Bryan Ferry and Nick Cave, among many others, the opportunity to stretch their legs on material a few leagues west of their standard course (that's the last sailing metaphor, for the moment).

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The stage version of Rogue's Gallery, which has proved successful in London, Gateshead, Dublin and New York in recent years, is just one of the many ensemble music shows Willner, 52, has produced during the past 20 years. Subjects ranging from American songwriter Tim Buckley to the Marquis de Sade have made it to the stage under Willner's guidance. Most famously in Australia he was behind the hugely successful all-star tribute Came So Far For Beauty: an Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen, a highlight of the Sydney Festival in 2005.

Now he's travelling from his home in New York for a one-night stand in what must be an ideal location for his latest creation. "At the harbour it should be a perfect situation for this kind of show and this kind of material," he says. "We did it in the docks near Dublin [in 2008]. Outside it took on a whole different life."

The songs on Rogue's Gallery, the album, also take on a different life in their modern guise. Contemporary artists refresh and reinvent songs dating back centuries, among them plaintive odes such as A Dying Sailor to His Shipmates, Lowlands Away and Farewell Nancy, alongside the more raucous What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?, Baltimore Whores and the completely filthy Good Ship Venus. Clearly a life on the ocean demanded an outlet for sailors' wants and needs and songs were part of the remedy. "They were making them up," says Willner, "because they were bored at sea and seeing who could come up with the most outrageous lines. Some of them survived. There also some incredibly beautiful songs, ballads. It's an amazing collection." The stage show will represent all aspects of the album's broad canvas, although no set list will be confirmed until rehearsals are under way.

Willner describes the show as "the most fun of the ones we've done ... It's just an evening of wonderful ballads and sea songs and of course the music is so very different to Leonard Cohen's [this contrast sends him into a fit of laughter].

"It's the same kind of philosophy, though," he adds. "If the purists who like this kind of music like what I'm doing then I'm not doing a good job ... which isn't really true, but there are people out there saying 'This is how it should be done'. It's all about a personal take on the song. We're taking a body of work and relating it to who we are, not doing it by the book. I do not - under any circumstances - want people not to like it, but it is what it is."

The idea of recording a collection of "pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys", as the album is subtitled, has an amusing history. Chatting on the movie set of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the film's director Gore Verbinski and leading man Johnny Depp hatched the plan and presented it to Willner. He didn't hesitate.

"Not at all," he says. "It had everything involved that I find appealing: It's a great idea. It was music that I am not an expert on and It's important for me to have a project where I can learn along with the audience. I was flattered to be asked to go on such a great journey."

Flattered he may have been, but Willner has become the go-to guy for large-scale musical tributes. And he gets off on doing them.

"The opportunity, when it presents itself, to have this kind of cast, which is about taking music and making it just about music again, is fantastic," he says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the music in that setting and you know you're going to get some magical moments from that.

"You know you'll get something that is stunning and you also know you're going to get some strange ones."

Anyone who saw Came So Far For Beauty or indeed any of Willner's shows may have spotted him side of stage occasionally, looking anything from anxious to elated.

"I don't really see the shows," he says. "We're all putting it together backstage, making it happen. There are moments when I come out, for torturous reasons on the numbers that I think are dangerous and could go very wrong, or that might get crazy audience reaction ... like with the Cohen show and Antony [Hegarty, from Antony and the Johnsons] was performing and Australian audiences didn't really know him.

"So when he performed I came out to see how an audience who had never even heard of him responds to that," Willner says. He needn't have worried. Hegarty's performance was one of the highlights of the show and launched the singer's career here (Antony and the Johnsons appear in Sydney on January 31 and February 1 and at the Perth International Arts Festival on February 5 and 6, in both cities appearing with orchestras). "To see that reaction for the first time was really very magical," says Willner.

LIKE many of the Rogue's Gallery participants, Perth band Little Birdy's singer Steele has little or no grounding in the sea shanty, although some of her songs have similar themes. "On our last album Confetti I had heaps of songs that use the words sailor and sea," she says. "It's just a theme that touches something in me, I'm not sure why."

Steele, however, is no stranger to the tribute concept. She was one of the Australian artists who took part in a celebration of Paul Kelly's work in Melbourne in November.

She, too, is looking forward to the surprise aspect of Rogue's Gallery (she doesn't yet know what she's singing) and to the camaraderie that such shows inspire.

"From what I understand there will be a real family vibe about it," she says. "It's really exciting to be part of it. You're all living for the same thing, which is to create a moment. It's a one-off, so let's make the most of it."

Willner concurs. "What makes it interesting is that there is a backstage show as well," he says.

"Backstage everyone is cheering each other on. These relationships develop between people from jazz, rock, folk, classical ... all working together and bringing it back to the music and nothing else. It's about that musical collaboration and enjoying what you're doing."

Richards says he's looking forward to the collaboration, even if he isn't completely au fait with the shanty genre. The closest he has come is with his band Augie March, who dressed in sailors' outfits for a film clip to their song Heartbeat and Sails. He has been studying the Rogue's Gallery collection, however.

"I bought the record a couple of years ago and I've just started listening to it again," he says. "I've struggled a bit listening to it and deciding which song I should do, but it's probably not up to me anyway."

Like Steele, Richards has been involved in similar ensemble shows in the past, most recently in the tribute to Australian songwriter Kev Carmody, Cannot Buy My Soul, at this year's Queensland Music Festival. That show was also a highlight of the Sydney Festival in 2008.

For Rogue's Gallery he'd prefer to leap into the raucous R-rated material than trade on his reputation as balladeer. "I wouldn't mind doing Good Ship Venus, but I imagine that one's taken," he says. "I want to stay clear of what I'm expected to go for, which is the more melancholy balladry. I'd rather not do that because the other shows like this that I've done in the past couple of years ... the songs they tend to throw at me are the ones similar to what I do. There's not so much fun in that for me."

Far from being an expert, Willner admits to having had no interest at all in sea shanties and pirate songs or that kind of music when he was growing up in Philadelphia. "I didn't have a taste for Kurt Weill either but as you get older you change," he says, referencing one of the artists whose work he has paid tribute to, with an album featuring big-name contributors.

Willner made his name initially with an album tribute in 1981 to Nino Rota, the composer who worked extensively with film director Federico Fellini. The recording featured Deborah Harry, Wynton Marsalis and Bill Frisell, among others.

He followed that with a succession of equally well-received ensemble tributes to Weill, jazz legend Thelonius Monk and songwriter Harold Arlen, whose classics include Stormy Weather and Over the Rainbow. Since then Willner's work has expanded into film, television and theatre. Following the Rogue's Gallery performance, he'll switch attention to a Neil Young stage tribute taking place in Vancouver next month.

His taste in music, he says, knows no bounds. "I had rock 'n' roll roots that I let go for 10 years and then went back to them," he says. "Now I'm listening to everything."

What he might be listening to in the months ahead is a second volume of Rogue's Gallery recordings. There was a surplus from the first batch and more have been added. Among the contributors this time are Tom Waits, The Pogues' Shane MacGowan and Keith Richards.

Willner is even considering taking the stage version on the road, although the logistics of making that work could prove a headache. Gathering a famous cast for just one performance is difficult enough.

"It's in my fantasy, when the second volume comes out, to take this on the road worldwide and change the cast every two weeks," he says. "I guess it is ambitious, but it seems natural to me. I think it would be spectacular and a lot of fun."

And does he ever worry that a show might not work?

"A lot of projects I've done [where] the chance of failure was big, and that's okay," he says. "If you're not taking the chance of failing how good can it get? It's always a risk. Every time I do one I vow never to do it again ... but thank God I'm working."

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