On this, his 90th birthday weekend, newly minted nonagenarian Willie Nelson and a slew of his famous friends and admirers are gathering at the Hollywood Bowl to celebrate his decades of musical genius.
Among the dozens of artists scheduled to perform in tribute to and alongside Nelson on Saturday and Sunday nights: Neil Young, Beck, George Strait, Kris Kristofferson, Snoop Dogg, Chris Stapleton, Stephen Stills, Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert, Bob Weir, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, Dwight Yoakam, Allison Russell, the Chicks, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Tom Jones and Nelson’s sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson (under the name Particle Kid).
Ethan Hawke, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Chelsea Handler are among the celebrity emcees.
Although Nelson has been slowed some by age, his performance at last year’s Palomino Festival in Pasadena prompted The Times’ Mikael Wood to rave, “Nelson’s singing was a marvel of musicianly instinct, with unexpected blue notes and little swerves of tempo that thoroughly blurred the lines among country, jazz and soul music; his guitar playing was even more of a thrill as he rattled up and down Trigger’s neck, using the instrument as much for percussion as for harmony.”
Wood and Erin Osmon are at the Bowl for both nights, bringing live updates of the Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 performances as they happen:
6:31 p.m. Greetings from the Hollywood Bowl, where the good and the great of music are gathering to toast Willie Nelson on the occasion of his 90th birthday. I’m Mikael Wood, The Times’ pop music critic, and I’m here with author and journalist Erin Osmon; together the two of us will be bringing you news and analysis from the show as it happens.
Backstage, some of the evening’s many performers are walking the red carpet, including Miranda Lambert in a powder-blue western-style suit. Asked whether she knows anyone who doesn’t love Willie Nelson, she said, “No — I’m not friends with those people. If you don’t love dogs and Willie, we can’t be friends.” — Mikael Wood
7:06 p.m. Hello! I’m Erin Osmon, author, music journalist, critic and big-time Willie Nelson enthusiast. It’s great to be here with Mikael at the 90th birthday celebration of an American icon. As Ethan Hawke told me backstage: “Willie Nelson will never die.” Given this turnout, I believe it. — Erin Osmon
7:11 p.m. As Willie himself has been doing onstage for decades, the young bluegrass phenom Billy Strings — who just dropped a duet with Nelson called “California Sober” — is opening the show with “Whiskey River.” Tonight’s house band, by the way, is being led by producer Don Was and includes some L.A. session scene heavy hitters, among them keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Greg Leisz. — M.W.
7:14 p.m. It’s safe to say that folks are loving Billy Strings’ versions of “Whiskey River” and “Stay All Night,” particularly the plucky solos. They’re dancing in the aisles, and we’re just getting started. — E.O.
7:15 p.m. What we’re all gathered here to celebrate, according to Ethan Hawke, who just appeared onstage in a silky peach-colored suit: “The love of music, the love of storytelling, the love of Willie Nelson.” — M.W.
7:18 p.m. Charley Crockett, fellow Texas native, is here to do “The Party’s Over,” and his buttery baritone voice is perfect for it. In conversation with me backstage, Crockett drew many parallels between his winding road to the music industry and Nelson’s. He said he’s been reading books about Nelson lately and that it’s been comforting for him to “see another person who started in backrooms in Texas and then made it at an older age on his own terms.” — E.O.
7:31 p.m. “Thanks for coming to my dad’s birthday party,” says Willie’s youngest son, Micah, who performs as Particle Kid and who’s bringing some spacey art-rock vibes to the concert with help from Daniel Lanois, the sound-sculpting producer who oversaw Nelson’s 1998 album “Teatro.” Together they’re doing a dreamy-churchy rendition of “The Ghost,” which Micah introduced as “a song my dad wrote about 70 years ago.” — M.W.
7:32 p.m. Worth noting: About a half-hour into the show, Willie himself has yet to appear onstage. I wonder how many folks in the audience assumed the guest of honor would be performing throughout the evening? — M.W.
7:45 p.m. Lyle Lovett, yet another Texas native, describes “Hello Walls,” which he’s covering tonight, as the “perfect song.” It’s a classic that Nelson wrote in the early ’60s and that became a hit for the country singer Faron Young in 1961. Lovett’s version tonight keeps close to the original, with the quirky singer on acoustic guitar and soulful backing by the McCrary Sisters. On the red carpet, he told me that Nelson “gave permission to a lot of folks [like himself] who came along afterwards to be themselves and not necessarily conform to conventions.” The inspiration rings clear in this performance. — E.O.
7:49 p.m. Margo Price — here to sing Willie and Waylon Jennings’ “I Can Get Off on You” with Nathaniel Rateliff — takes the opportunity to call attention to Nelson’s long-term advocacy for American farmers. As much as Nelson’s had a “profound musical influence on me,” Price says, “I’m just as moved by his 45-year commitment to Farm Aid.” — M.W.
7:51 p.m. A few words from Dame Helen Mirren (!): “Willie’s musical world is vast. The sheer number and variety of artists he has touched is remarkable. He bends and blends genres; he ignores categories; his timing is his own. He simply follows the spirit wherever the spirit leads.” — M.W.
7:54 p.m. Beck is countrifying the “Sea Change” sound tonight on “Hands on the Wheel.” People really underestimate Beck as a singer, but this tune is a perfect match for his range, light soulfulness and way with phrasing. The performance is deeply satisfying and is met with widespread applause. “Love you, Willie,” he says to sign off. — E.O.
7:59 p.m. Norah Jones frames her performance of the traditional “Down Yonder” as a tribute to Willie’s piano-playing sister Bobbie, who died last year at age 91. — M.W.
8 p.m. Fun fact: Norah Jones’ backing band is the Little Willies. “I love that he’s just himself. He’s unique. He’s never tried to fit into a box. He writes the best songs out of anyone on the planet. He’s one of my favorite guitar players. It’s the perfect package of uniqueness,” she told me on the red carpet. — E.O.
8:14 p.m. Can safely say that the word “legendary” has already been abused by our MCs tonight, who just used it to describe Warren Haynes. No shots at Warren Haynes! But c’mon. That said, Haynes is cooking in a rendition of “Midnight Rider” that’s got the hippies behind us twirling extra hard. — M.W.
8:20 p.m. A standing ovation from the crowd for 86-year-old Kris Kristofferson, who’s joined Rosanne Cash to sing “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Do Again).” Kristofferson, who has attributed his well-documented memory troubles to Lyme disease, is a bit shaky yet movingly determined as he trades lines with Cash, whose father, Johnny, famously played with Kristofferson in the Highwaymen. Very poignant. — M.W.
8:22 p.m. Willie’s son Lukas is nailing his dad’s signature vocal tone (if not quite his one-of-a-kind guitar-playing) in a solo take on one of Willie’s most beautiful songs, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” — M.W.
8:26 p.m. The temperature dropped so dramatically at the Bowl tonight that I, for the first time in my life, bought a sweatshirt at the show and promptly put it on. I’m that guy now, I guess. For Willie Nelson, and only Willie Nelson, will I suffer this embarrassment. — E.O.
8:30 p.m. “As a kid growing up in Texas, there really was nothing bigger than Willie Nelson,” says presenter Owen Wilson. — M.W.
8:35 p.m. Leon Bridges’ take on “Night Life” with Gary Clark Jr. summoned the country-adjacent, pop-vocal magic of “Stardust” in the best way possible. Now, Clark’s doing “Texas Flood,” popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan, because, he says, Willie and Stevie were pals. I dunno, if given the choice between any Willie Nelson song and Stevie Ray Vaughan, I’d choose Nelson every time. Imagine if he’d applied his signature blues noodling to a Willie tune! The crowd is eating this up, though. — E.O.
8:39 p.m. Jack Johnson is recounting a tough night he spent playing poker with Nelson in Hawaii in his song “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money.” — M.W.
8:41 p.m. It’s worth noting that this entire night is filled with Willie Nelson’s poker buds, stoner buds and Texas buds — a wide-ranging Willie cohort that generally refuses to be boxed in, much like the man himself. — E.O.
8:50 p.m. The Hawke (Ethan) has landed once again, to introduce rising phenom Tyler Childers, who performs a mournful version of “Healing Hands of Time” with his band the Food Stamps. A lot of these performances have been notably “up,” and Childers’ cover is one of the first that really brings this (very high) crowd back down to earth. His take on “Time of the Preacher,” with its scratchy screeches, reminds me of an emo kid who’s just gotten into country music, and I mean that in a good way. There’s an earnestness to it that rings brightly from the stage. — E.O.
8:55 p.m. Shout-out to Don Was’ band of Hollywood pros, who are capably backing Ziggy Marley in a super-funky reggae reading of what might be Nelson’s most metaphysical tune, “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” Kind of makes me wish more non-country acts had been booked for this show so we could’ve seen more radical reinventions of Willie’s songs (which almost always can handle whatever’s thrown at them). — M.W.
9 p.m. Tom Jones has taken to the stage to apply a glossy veneer to “Opportunity to Cry,” a tune Willie wrote in 1963 and famously sang with Merle Haggard. “I hope he likes it,” he declares, as if crossing his fingers. But it’s not the first time he’s done it; he covered the tune on 2015’s “Long Lost Suitcase.” — E.O.
9:05 p.m. Two hours in, and still no sign of Willie. Just FYI! — M.W.
9:07 p.m. The owner of Nashville’s most impressive beard (at least until Chris Stapleton pulled up), Jamey Johnson is doing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” which Nelson cut with the Highwaymen on the supergroup’s final LP in 1995. — M.W.
9:12 p.m. During the set, images of the Highwaymen were projected on the arch that bends above the stage; it read as part celebration, and part in memoriam. It’s inevitable, of course, but Willie’s at an age where so many of the people he worked with — some of his closest friends — are no longer with us. That’s a heavy through-line in this otherwise jubilant evening. — E.O.
9:20 p.m. Bob Weir, a student of Nelson’s in the School of Cosmic Cowboy, offered a somber rendition of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” with little stage banter and lots of dexterous guitar work. The Grateful Dead played with Willie a few times over the years, and Weir is poised to head out on Nelson’s upcoming Outlaw Music Festival with his band Wolf Bros. This performance was a nice amuse-bouche. — E.O.
9:25 p.m. Big cheers in the crowd as the Chicks — probably the most commercially successful act on this show’s lineup? — deliver the line about “leaving baby somewhere in L.A.” from “Bloody Mary Morning.” This might be the rowdiest performance of the night so far. — M.W.
9:29 p.m. Who — and I can’t be clear enough as I ask this — booked the Lumineers to sing “A Song for You”? “A Song for You”! One of the most soulful tunes in the American musical canon — a song beautifully performed by Leon Russell, by Donny Hathaway, by Ray Charles, by Aretha Franklin, by Willie Nelson — reduced here to corny “American Idol” cosplay. Hated it! — M.W.
9:32 p.m. The Lumineers doing “A Song for You” demonstrated an absence of soul, depth and believable yearning. But it also, mercifully, had no stomping or clamping. So we’ll call it even? — E.O.
9:38 p.m. Best banter of the night comes from Sturgill Simpson, who tells the audience, “There’s only one reason I’m not on a beach in South Asia right now, and that’s Willie Nelson.” He goes on to confess something he says he’s never had the courage to tell Nelson, which is that the only reason he went to Nashville to make country records is “because I grew up listening to country records by Willie Nelson” — records, he adds, that exist “outside of the box of what most people think country records can be.” Then he says that the only reason he signed to Atlantic Records is because Willie did, even though “that didn’t work out too well for me.” Simpson’s performance is just as strong: a tough but tender rendition of “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” the Steven Fromholz tune Nelson recorded in the mid-’70s.—M.W.
9:45 p.m. And the award for best outfit goes to … Miranda Lambert, who performed “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” in a sparkly, red-and-black jumpsuit with cascading fringe. Her goal was to sing a song by “cowboy Willie,” according to an introduction by Jennifer Garner, and it’s clear she’s comfy in the zone where American iconography meets pop culture, a country music cornerstone. She masterfully belted out Nelson’s top-streaming track with a diva’s flair. Nelson originally recorded it with Waylon Jennings for their beloved 1978 album “Waylon & Willie,” and it’s wild to see how much the song has sustained its popularity over the years, performed by everyone from Lambert to Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson of breakout indie-country act Plains on their 2022 tour. — E.O.
9:50 p.m. When you’ve got Chris Stapleton on your show, you give him the chance to flex his soulful side, which is why he got two of the night’s most luscious slow jams: “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” and “Always on My Mind,” both of which he sang with gentle-giant warmth. — M.W.
10 p.m. A week after they teamed up at an autism benefit concert at the Greek Theatre, Neil Young and Stephen Stills are here singing “Long May You Run.” I believe Neil is wearing the same outfit — jeans, denim jacket, train-conductor cap — he had on last weekend. — M.W.
10:03 p.m. Love them both, but this is … a mess. At one point Neil giggled about the roughness of it all. — E.O.
10:06 p.m. Now Young and Stills are doing “For What It’s Worth,” and I have to agree, Erin — these dudes are playing hilariously fast and loose with the song’s, y’know, notes. Also: Does Willie have any meaningful connection whatsoever with this tune? A disaster, for sure, though I’m kind of amused. — M.W.
10:09 p.m. This does not fulfill the brief! It is neither a Willie tribute nor a selection of music couched in a birthday wish. It’s like a drunken backyard BBQ jam. — E.O.
10:10 p.m. And yet — the night’s biggest reaction from the crowd. Love it. — M.W.
10:15 p.m. Willie is here at last, sauntering out from backstage to join Young for “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” Then he thanks all the artists who’ve come out to “help us celebrate whatever we’re celebrating.” — M.W.
10:23 p.m. It makes sense that George Strait and Willie Nelson opened with their 2019 novelty tune “Sing One With Willie.” If there’s anything I know about Nelson, it’s that he loves to yuk it up. And what better occasion than his birthday with a fellow Texan and country music icon? Strait is noticeably clean-cut compared to Nelson and many who’ve graced this stage tonight. But that speaks to Willie’s range and the wide swatch of humanity that loves him. He’s so often described as “radical,” and part of that is how many different kinds of people he and his music nurture. — E.O.
10:29 p.m. A true delight to hear famously straight-laced George Strait tell the audience that Willie “sang the s— out of” their next song, Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” when he cut it with Merle Haggard in the early ’80s. — M.W.
10:33 p.m. “Hey Snoop,” Willie says, “come on out here and help me roll one up” — Snoop Dogg’s cue to join Nelson for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” which Snoop suggests they play “in the key of smoke.” — M.W.
10:35 p.m. Snoop sang! Kind of! His greater purpose, of course, was to be the night’s weed ambassador, as evidenced by his mid-song banter. — E.O.
10:38 p.m. Willie is doing “On the Road Again” — again — and as always, it’s an absolute thrill to hear how eager this man seems to trip up his band (which includes his sons Lukas and Micah) with his unpredictable phrasing. — M.W.
10:43 p.m. Everyone who performed tonight was onstage for “I’ll Fly Away,” emanating a palpable sense of family. A fitting end to the love fest. — E.O.
10:45 p.m. Except it’s not over! After leading the house in a seemingly conclusive rendition of “Happy Birthday to Me,” Willie is now singing Mac Davis’ great early-’80s ditty “Hard to Be Humble,” about how he “must be a hell of a man.” — M.W.
10:47 p.m. “We’ll see you tomorrow night,” Willie says to close the show (for real this time). “We love you.” — M.W.