As Willie Nelson played “On the Road Again” toward the close of the first of two star-packed birthday concerts at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday (April 29), that song’s joyous declaration was more poignant than ever. “The life I love is making music with my friends,” he sang.
More than 45 of those friends gathered over the two nights for what presenter Ethan Hawke called “a celebration of love — love of music, love of storytelling, and love of Willie Nelson… an American icon.”
Saturday’s spectacular show offered performances by: Beck with Daniel Lanois, Edie Brickell with Charlie Sexton, Leon Bridges with Gary Clark, Jr., Rosanne Cash with Kris Kristofferson, The Chicks, Charley Crockett, Snoop Dogg, Warren Haynes, Jack Johnson, Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones, Tom Jones, Miranda Lambert, Lyle Lovett, The Lumineers, Ziggy Marley, Lukas Nelson, Particle Kid (Micah Nelson), Margo Price with Nathaniel Rateliff, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, George Strait, Stephen Stills with Neil Young, Billy Strings and Bobby Weir. Presenters introducing the artists Saturday included Hawke, Jennifer Garner, Helen Mirren and Owen Wilson.
On tap exclusively for Sunday: The Avett Brothers, Buddy Cannon, Randy Crowell, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Booker T. Jones, Dave Matthews, Lily Meola, Wayne Payne, Orville Peck and Allison Russell, along with additional presenters Chelsea Handler, Woody Harrelson and Gabriel Iglesas.
All came to celebrate the long, rich, triumphant life of Nelson, one of the most acclaimed songwriters and singers of his age, and an accomplished actor, author and activist.
Nelson’s friends came to mine a motherlode of remarkable songs. According to BMI, Nelson has registered nearly 450 works since becoming a member of the performing rights organization in the 1950s. Still a vital, creative force, he won the 2023 Grammy Award in February for best country album for A Beautiful Time and last month released a collection of the songs of Harlan Howard, I Don’t Know A Thing About Love. It is his 150th album, according to Texas Monthly.
Led by musical director Don Was on bass, the night’s stellar band included Nelson’s longtime sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica, keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarists Audley Freed and Tom Bukovac, Gabe Witcher on violin, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, and backup singers Alfreda McCrary, Ann McCrary and Regina McCrary. If one member of this band deserves a shout-out it is Raphael, whose harp was a constant, sweet sonic thread throughout the night.
Produced by Blackbird Presents, Live Nation and Hewitt Silva, the event’s executive producers are Nelson’s longtime manager Mark Rothbaum, Blackbird’s Keith Wortman, promoter Bill Silva, film director and producer Brian Smith and Nelson’s longtime representatives, Creative Artists Agency.
Rothman says plans for this event began a year ago and the decision to spread the celebration over two nights not only recognized the depth of talent involved but also Nelson’s long-celebrated double birthday in April.
“I was born before midnight on the 29th,” Nelson told listeners of his SiriusXM radio show in 2018, “but it didn’t get registered in the county courthouse [in his hometown of Abbott, Texas] until the next day. So it went out officially as the 30th. So I just do both days.”
On Saturday, Strings kicked off the birthday party with “Whiskey River,” which was written in 1972 by Johnny Bush but has been Nelson’s signature show-opener for years. Crockett followed with “The Party’s Over,” which Nelson recorded in 1967, and later became a staple for Monday Night Football host Don Meredith whenever a football match headed for a blowout. Nelson’s son Micah, who performs as Particle Kid, was joined by Lanois on pedal steel, for a dreamy and spooky version of “The Ghost” from a 1967 album produced by Chet Atkins. The song was a reminder of how rich Nelson’s repertoire was even in the Nashville years he was considered a failure as a recording artist.
“Willie is a spirit guide,” said Brickell as she took the stage with Sexton for beautiful harmonies on “Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming),” which Nelson recorded on his landmark 1975 album Red Headed Stranger. That spirit side of Nelson — call it zen — was evident in his writing early on, in songs like “Hello Walls,” a No. 1 Hot Country Songs hit for Faron Young. “I’ve always thought of it as the perfect song,” said Lovett as he sang that classic.
“Willie’s musical world is vaa-hst,” said presenter and famed British actress Helen Mirren. Echoing Brickell’s comment, Mirren said, “He simply follows the spirit, whenever the spirit leads.”
Nelson’s generous spirit in 1985 led him to create Farm Aid, the organization which has advocated on behalf of America’s family farmers with its annual benefit concert for nearly four decades. Price, now a member of the Farm Aid board, was joined by Farm Aid mainstay Rateliff, to duet on “I Can Get Off On You,” which Nelson co-wrote and recorded with Waylon Jennings in 1978.
Beck’s rendition of “Hands on the Wheel,” from Red Headed Stranger, was a measured, intense, fist-clenched performance. Jones played the piano romp “Down Yonder” in memory of Nelson’s younger sister and piano player Bobbie, who died in March 2022. She then sang “Funny How Time Slips Away” with the kind of off-the-beat vocals which Nelson has perfected. Former Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes played that band’s “Midnight Rider,” which Nelson contributed to the soundtrack of the 1979 film The Electric Horseman.
Nelson in 1985 teamed up with three lifelong friends, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, and the four were later collectively billed as The Highwaymen. Introduced by Hawkes as “the first daughter of The Highwaymen,” Rosanne Cash came onstage with Kristofferson to sing his classic “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Cash caressed the neck of the 86-year-old Kristofferson, who embraced her in return, in one of the night’s most moving moments.
Lukas Nelson channeled his father’s love of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt with his solo on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Bridges sang “Nightlife,” accompanied by Clark, who then honored another great Texan by scorching through Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Flooding Down in Texas.” Jack Johnson credited two of Nelson’s favorite pastimes, smoking marijuana and playing poker, singing his lyric “Willie got me stoned and took all my money.”
Tom Jones, acknowledging Nelson’s milestone birthday, quipped, “I’m only 83 myself so I have a lot to look forward to,” then dug deep into the singer’s catalog for “Opportunity to Cry” from the early ’60s.
In a night filled with non-stop memorable moments, Jamey Johnson’s song choice stood out as he sang Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” which Nelson recorded with Lucinda Williams last year for a Shaver tribute album. Johnson sang: “Nobody here will ever find me/ but I will always be around/ just like the songs I leave behind me / I’m going to live forever now.”
The Chicks turned “Bloody Mary Morning” into a double-tempo, fiddle-fired rave up. The Lumineers sang Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” — which Russell and Ray Charles sang with Nelson at his 70th birthday concert in New York in April 2003. Rateliff returned to the stage for Steve Goodman’s exuberant “City of New Orleans,” which Nelson covered back in 1984.
Bedecked in red-fringed sleeves on dark blue sparkling dress, Lambert elicited cheers as she declared she had come to honor Willie Nelson “the cowboy,” then raised the temperature of the chilly Los Angeles night with her version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
The back-to-back stars continued as Stapleton chose two songs from Nelson’s 1982 album Always on My Mind, the title track and “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” which Stapleton later covered on his own 2017 album From A Room: Volume 1.
For the second time in a week, following their April 22 concert at the Greek Theater to benefit Autism Speaks, Neil Young reunited with Stephen Stills and aptly offered “Long May You Run,” recorded by the Stills-Young Band in 1976, as their gift to Nelson. Stills took lead vocals on the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth.”
The placement of three stools at center stage — for Nelson and his sons — signaled the arrival of the guest of honor. Young and Nelson revived their 1985 collaboration “Are There Any More Real Cowboys.” Then, as if to answer that question, George Strait took the stage and the two country superstars parried on Strait’s 2019 song “Sing One With Willie.”
Norah Jones earlier in the evening had called Nelson “genre-less,” crediting his ability to create community and connections across the scope of American music. That was wonderfully clear as Snoop Dogg and Nelson sat alongside each other to sing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
“Happy Birthday to me!” shouted a delighted Nelson as the show came to a close with “On The Road Again” and his traditional finale of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” joined by the evening’s entire ensemble. Hawke stepped forth to give what must have been scripted show-closing remarks. But Nelson has never followed anyone’s script and instead closed the night with the self-deprecating humor of Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard to be Humble.”
Flanking the Hollywood Bowl stage was the logo designed for this event. It showed Nelson, in silhouette, guitar over his back, upon his horse and riding into the sunset. It’s hard to imagine that sunset will come any time soon.
Additional reporting by Melinda Newman