Just call them the Rolling Stoners.
You know you are music royalty when Keith Richards shows up to pay his respects. And the Rolling Stones icon was on hand Sunday for the second and final night of Willie Nelson’s epic, 90th birthday concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
At 79, Richards was the youngster in this pairing of living legends, and the two harmonized sweetly on two songs: Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All” and the late outlaw Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” particularly poignant with its refrain, “Just like the songs I leave behind me / I’m gonna live forever, now.”
The Richards surprise came shortly after 10:00 p.m. on this cool, overcast night in the hills above Hollywood, nearly three-and-a-half hours into the evening’s celebration.
Earlier in the set, giant plumes of smoke were projected against the Bowl bandshell as Jack Johnson regaled the crowd with tales of losing poker games to Nelson in his home state of Hawaii, a memory that inspired him to write the song “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money.”
Marijuana would be a common theme throughout the night. Dave Matthews, who admitted to be nervous in the presence of so many musical titans, recalled meeting Nelson 30 years ago while playing at Farm Aid, then being invited to join the country legend on his tour bus for a marathon smoking session.
“When I thought it couldn’t go on any longer, it had only just begun,” Matthews said. (A photo commemorating the moment adorns his proud mother’s mantel.) He then performed a gorgeous rendition of Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Woody Harrelson, too, was on hand in a cowboy hat to introduce a couple of marquee names — Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead — who performed the Western swing classic “Stay a Little Longer” — and, later, Willie himself, who snuck up on him from behind.
(The White House Plumbers star couldn’t resist getting in a plug for his West Hollywood weed dispensary, The Woods, just as he did during his Saturday Night Live monologue in February.)
Ethan Hawke, in a suit of peach satin, and Helen Mirren, sporting Nelson’s own cowboy hat, also popped up from time to time to introduce performers as disparate as Beck, Tom Jones, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones (who performed a touching duet with Kris Kristofferson, 86, on Kristofferson’s popular romantic ballad “Help Me Make it Through the Night”), and Sheryl Crow.
Crow recalled Kristofferson’s advice to her, whispered backstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre 27 years ago, to shining alongside Nelson: “Don’t try to sing with him — just sing louder than him.”
Other sparkling moments involved next-generation (just don’t call them nepo-babies) country stars Shooter Jennings, a dead ringer for his father Waylon, and Lukas Nelson, Willie’s boy, who dueted on “Good Hearted Woman,” written by their dads in 1971.
The boys emerged again a little later along with Micah Nelson, Willie’s youngest, and Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, for a rendition of “Highwayman,” the song which in 1985 inspired the founding of the supergroup The Highwaymen by their respective fathers and Kristofferson.
By the time everyone emerged for “On the Road Again” and then a sing-along of “Happy Birthday to You,” the Bowl bandshell emblazoned in a projection of Old Glory, it was a rare moment of patriotic pride in a true national treasure.
Nelson deserves nothing less.