Hal Willner's taking risks with his Neil Young Project

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      Hal Willner knows better than to promise perfection for the Neil Young tribute he's producing as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

      “Basically, the first night will be our run-through, and the second night will be our dress rehearsal,” he says, laughing over the line from his New York City office. But Willner is also confident that the Neil Young Project's audiences are going to have a good time.

      “We know the songs are great, and we know the artists are great,” he explains. “So the thing we can guarantee is that it's going to be something really worth seeing.”

      And why not? In addition to the mix of hits and rarities that Willner's culled from Young's song catalogue, he's booked two great backing bands: Broken Social Scene, whose members have helped plan the concerts, and a crack team of New York improvisers and session players. Featured vocalists run the gamut from the near-legendary to the almost-unknown: Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, Brit-folk pioneer Vashti Bunyan, harmolodic bluesman James Blood Ulmer, Iron & Wine frontman Sam Beam, Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith, and Scotland's Alasdair Roberts are just a few of the names on the bill.

      Assembling the cast, picking the songs, and creating a script for the night is a big job, but Willner's had a bit of practice at this sort of thing. In addition to having been Saturday Night Live's music supervisor since 1981, he's drawn on his well-stocked Rolodex to craft a series of stunning thematic recordings that, so far, have looked at the music of Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and more. (Don't miss 2006's Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, an exceptionally bawdy and entertaining homage to the seafaring life.) He's also the force behind the concert film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, which applied the Willner method to the songs of Canada's Buddhist bard.

      His approach, Willner says, is a mixture of studious research and spur-of-the-moment inspiration. He begins by studying the source material, which in the case of the Neil Young Project involved listening to something like 600 songs. (“I've always loved his work,” he notes wryly, “but I wouldn't have been able to answer a Trivial Pursuit game on him before we did this.”) Once he's chosen the songs he wants to work with, he begins assigning them to the different artists.

      “By the time we get on the stage, there will be a script,” he says. “And I always find if you know exactly what's going to happen next, then the artists can be loose within that. A lot of magical moments come out of that.

      “It's a lot of risk,” he adds, confessing that he hasn't quite finished planning his Vancouver shows. “But what happens then is that you're guaranteed some once-in-a-lifetime, magical things, and you're guaranteed stuff that's not going to work. So what you hope for is that 95 percent of the show is the magical part, right? And usually it works out that way.”

      Hal Willner helms the Neil Young Project at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday and Friday (February 18 and 19).