Willie Nelson looked up from his chair at the center of the Hollywood Bowl and smiled as his friend and fellow icon Keith Richards walked on stage Sunday night.
Richards was the biggest surprise guest, if not an entirely unexpected one. There’d been rumors, and apparently the Rolling Stone’s name had been included as part of the lineup on the T-shirts for sale.
But still – Willie Nelson, now 90, and Keith Richards, somehow 79, singing “Live Forever” together at the Hollywood Bowl? My goodness, it just does not get better than that.
And that’s kind of how it felt all night and all weekend as friends and fellow musicians flowed on and off the stage to pay tribute to Nelson, one of the most legendary and beloved singer-songwriters of all time.
Nelson celebrates his birthday both April 29 – the day he was born – and April 30 – the date his birth certificate was filed – so Long Story Short: An All-Star Celebration of Willie’s 90th naturally needed two nights of music to do the man justice.
And what nights they were: 80 songs across Saturday and Sunday, with only 10 or so repeats, and about 45 different artists from across both nights.
Many of the fans who packed the Bowl came both nights – how could you risk missing a favorite song or performer? – but if you only caught one, Sunday was the one not to miss. Yes, Saturday had Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Chris Stapleton and Snoop Dogg, none of whom returned the next night. But as a concert, Sunday was the best.
Here’s why that was so, and the highlights of the night.
Where Saturday featured deeper cuts from Willie’s catalog, Sunday had more of the bigger, beloved hits.
Nelson opened his set with the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust,” his still-nimble fingers running up and down the strings of Trigger, his well-worn acoustic guitar, as Booker T. Jones played the organ behind him.
Earlier, Jones joined country singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson and Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band for “Georgia (On My Mind),” another Carmichael cover, and the combination of their talents – Jones’ piano, Haynes soaring guitar solos, and Johnson’s powerful, emotional vocals produced another Sunday highlight.
Long before Nelson broke out as a solo performer, he was writing songs that became country standards. Sheryl Crow showed up Sunday to sing “Crazy,” the Nelson tune that Patsy Cline made her signature.
Dave Matthews was another new performer on Sunday, singing “Funny How Time Slips Away” while accompanying himself solo on acoustic guitar. One of the few artists to change the original arrangement of their song, Matthews made it his own even as it stayed fully Nelson’s.
In a few cases, performers matched better with their songs on Sunday than they had Saturday. This time, Beck sang “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” while Lyle Lovett did “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and in both cases, they surpassed their Saturday songs.
A family affair
Nelson calls his band the Family and that sense of familial love was especially strong on Sunday. Shooter Jennings, son of Willie’s close friend Waylon Jennings, sang with Lukas Nelson on “Good Hearted Woman,” the sons doing a song their fathers originally made famous.
Waylon Payne told the audience he’d known Nelson quite literally his entire life – his father Jody Payne played guitar in Nelson’s band for years, and his mother, the country singer Sammi Smith, often sang duets with Nelson. His version of “Georgia on a Fast Train” with Margo Price was an early highlight.
Just before Nelson came out to sing his first song, Shooter Jennings, Roseanne Cash, Lukas Nelson and his younger brother Micah Nelson, who performs as Particle Kid, recreated the Highwaymen, the country supergroup formed by their fathers Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson with Kris Kristofferson, and sang the No. 1 hit “Highwayman.”
Sometimes, it was just the song itself that underscored the importance of friendship and loyalty to Nelson, as when Dwight Yoakam sang “Me and Paul,” a song about Nelson’s much-loved bandmate and best friend, who over the years kept or got Nelson out of plenty of scrapes.
“Willie probably wouldn’t have made it to 60 without Paul English,” Yoakam said before starting the song.
The Nelson sons also did their own songs, with Lukas Nelson delivering a stunning version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and Micah Nelson singing a song he wrote after an offhand comment his father had made while playing dominos one day.
“He said, ‘If I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven,’” Micah Nelson said. “I said, ‘That’s the best song you’ve never written.’”
Nelson told Micah he should write it, so off he went to the garage and sparked his creativity.
“Somehow, I got high as (bleep), and then I wrote a Willie Nelson song,” Micah Nelson said as he and Daniel Lanois launched into “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven).”
Throughout the night, performers and celebrity emcees, including Woody Harrelson and Chelsea Handler, shared stories of their histories with Nelson and his songs.
Beck recounted how early in his career, while making a music video for his song “Jack-Ass,” he decided that as he played a coal miner in the video it would be cool to have Nelson as a wizard, riding by in a coal car, and throwing glitter on the dirty-faced Beck. Nelson didn’t hesitate one moment, he said, as the crowd laughed.
“Can you imagine waking up in the morning and opening your eyes and going, ‘I’m Willie Nelson,’” Beck said. “It’s already a great day.”
Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who was joined by Emmylou Harris for a pair of songs, told how he first met Nelson at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1977.
“Willie was on stage and I’d been smoking some weed so I wasn’t prepared for what came next,” Crowell said. “He said, ‘I’m going to do a Rodney Crowell song now. Why don’t you come on up here and sing it with me?’
“It felt like I’d been anointed,” Crowell said as he prepared to sing that very song, “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” “It was like sunlight dancing on your skin.”
Of course, the best Willie stories are those told in his songs and in the way he lives his life. After “Stardust,” his 40 minutes on stage continued with Crow joining him for “Faraway Places,” a song they’d recorded together in the past.
Then, Nelson set aside the big names for a bit. Lily Meola joined Nelson for “Will You Remember Mine.” They’d met when she was a teen – her mother was a close friend of his wife – and he has championed her talents since then.
His longtime producer Buddy Cannon – they’re currently making their 18th album together – appeared to sing a song that felt like eavesdropping on two old buddies sharing a tune on a West Texas porch.
Billy Strings arrived to sing their new duet “California Sober,” then Richards appeared, first to sing “We Had It All,” then “Live Forever,” a Billy Joe Shaver song covered by Nelson in the Highwaymen. The full lineup returned for “On The Road Again,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?/I’ll Fly Away” and “Happy Birthday” to finish the night.
“See you, same time tomorrow night,” Nelson said as he got up to walk off stage. He was joking, but you know the fans would show up if he wasn’t.
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