Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday at Hollywood Bowl Befitting A Living Legend (Review)

©Jay Blakesberg
Stephen Stills, Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young at the Hollywood Bowl celebrating Willie’s 90th Birthday on April 29, 2023. (Jay Blakesberg for Blackbird Presents)

Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 (Night One)
Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA
April 29, 2023

With an opening gauntlet of bluegrass iconoclast Billy Strings offering Willie Nelson’s time-honored concert kick-off “Whiskey River”/”Stay All Night” into Charley Crockett delivering the vintage “The Party’s Over,” followed by Particle Kid with Daniel Lanois performing a moody, atmospheric “The Ghost” and genre-blurring Edie Brickell with fellow Texas guitar phenom Charlie Sexton putting an earthy gleam on “Remember Me,” the breadth of Willie Nelson’s influence and independence was on full display, clearly demonstrated instead of merely stated. That truth only grew deeper and more potent across the almost four-hour “Long Story Short” celebration of Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl.

Produced by Blackbird Presents, musical vastness was one of the stories on display. Whether it was a besuited Lyle Lovett offering an elegant “Hello Walls,” Beck’s simple, straightforward “Hands On The Wheel,” jazz chanteuse Norah Jones creating an homage to Nelson’s recently passed sister Bobbie with extended piano passages and Mickey Raphael’s slow sunset harmonica on “Down Yonder” into “Funny How Times Slips Away” or Leon Bridges with Gary Clark, Jr. bringing full-swelter to “Night Life,” each had a personal stamp that also embodied essential Willie. Ziggy Marley, especially, delivered a rousing reggae take on Nelson’s sweeping “Still Is Still Moving” that left the crowd breathless.

Willie Nelson: The Nonagenarian Red-Headed Stranger
Breaks New Ground (Cover Story)

Breathless was often a state at the Hollywood Bowl. Lumineers’ Jeremiah Fraites alone on piano, homaging songwriter/artist Leon Russell, left room for lead singer Wesley Schultz alone at the mic to deliver “Song for You” so naked and tender, the sold-out crowd of 17,500 was brought to pin-drop silence. That same torched vulnerability infused Chris Stapleton’s hands folded on guitar delivery of Nelson’s No. 1 pop smash “Always On My Mind” with regret over times missed and a prayer of absolute cherishment.

WillieNelson90 042923 RosanneCash Timmermans 0307
Kris Kirstofferson and Rosanne Cash (Josh Timmermans for Blackbird Presents)

The night’s ultimate emotional high water mark was Rosanne Cash’s lush delivery of “Loving You Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” As the second verse crested, Kris Kristofferson emerged from the wings, joining the woman deemed “the first daughter of the Outlaws and Highwaymen” at the mic. The pair turned one of country’s most poetic songs into an intersection of many decades, turns and realities for the legend and the country-punk-princess-turned-Americana-poetess. As they looked into each other’s eyes, consumed by the passage of life and time, tears stained their cheeks.

Because Willie contains multitudes, many notes and moods resonated. On the humorous front, Jack Johnson brought his poker-playing tale “Willie Got Me Stoned [and Stole All My Money]” Snoop Dogg cosigned a zesty Nelson duet on the romping “Roll Me Up & Smoke Me (When I Die)” and true country scion George Strait teased about all Nelson’s duet partners – except him! – in “Sing One With Willie.”

Spirits – and smoke – were euphoric. Young guard alt-countrians Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps, Lukas Nelson and Margo Price captured the stealth punk refusal of Nelson’s career. Lukas delivered a picture perfect “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” dissolving generations as he revisited the love as long as you can ballad. For Price, it was the churning drug/drink versus love “I Can Get Off You,” and Simpson echoed the sentiment on a barn-busting “I’d Have To Be Crazy” for the win. Childers, whose “Healing Hands of Time” had pitch issues, turned himself inside out for a near exorcism on Red Headed Stranger’s “Time of the Preacher.”

That reverence defined soul raver Nathaniel Rateliff’s chugging version of “City of New Orleans.” Reverence also suffused outlier country star Jamey Johnson’s take on Billy Joe Shaver’s bluegrass near gospel “Live Forever,” which could’ve been the subtheme of the night. Banjo’n’fiddle bluegrass also shot through the Chicks’ giddyup beat “Bloody Mary Morning.”

©Jay Blakesberg
Miranda Lambert (Jay Blakesberg for Blackbird)

One of Nelson’s gifts, beyond the lean language that distills hard emotions, is the roadhouse/dance hall/beer garden lift in so much of his music. Stapleton’s throbbing “Last Thing I Needed” – with his own burning electric guitar solo – knowingly suggested the wages of nightlife, while Miranda Lambert’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” was a song of staunch Lone Star celebration – instead of caution – about a very specific breed of man.

At a time when country is so many things, Lambert and Stapleton seem both a true north and a hinge for the future of the same Outlaw culture Waylon and Willie conjured. Musically robust, they want to make actual country music with their roots firmly planted, but with the ability to create on their terms. It’s not fighting Music Row as much as fighting for greatness, an earmark of Nelson’s 70-year career.

The old guard came hard. Sir Tom Jones dug into “Opportunity To Cry” in a robust tavern singer’s lament, still a commanding vocalist. Bob Weir’s crunchy “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” suggested the Dead’s more country edge, but also the organic blues Rat Dog trades in. The behemoth moment, though, belonged to Neil Young, Stephen Stills and the Promise of the Real; ambling onstage for a gleaming crunch work out on “Long May You Run,” they served another sub-anthem for the festivities.

Things then got seismic. Launching into a taut “For What It’s Worth,” the elder rockers went electric guitar-to-electric guitar for a blasting riff-off near song’s end. Summoning gusto and glory is what rock & roll is supposed to be; the pair ignited genuine sparks.

Vamping on “Are There Any Real Cowboys,” Farm Aid co-founder Young brought Nelson to the stage for a song celebrating dying breeds, heroic values and getting the job done. The perfect introduction, as well as set up for Snoop Dogg’s moment, they moved to the indispensable “On The Road Again” and a return-the-cast-to-stage y’all sing of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Crescendo, threshold, wow.

WillieNelson90 042923 WillieNelson Timmermans 2451
Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson (and Lukas Nelson in the background), (Photo: Josh Timmermans for Blackbird Presents)

But Nelson’s wry twinkle was not to be missed. It presaged him leading the capacity crowd in “Happy Birthday To Me,” at easily the greatest 90th birthday party ever. Even more Williedelic, the glint in his eye sparkled, as he announced, “This is a song by my old friend Mac Davis.”

Launching into the hilariously self-effacing “It’s Hard To Be Humble,” he taught the crowd the chorus by feeding them each line. The exhausted chorus bubbled with sheer mirth, intoning lines about “being perfect in every way…” and “to know me is to love me/ I must be a helluva of man…”

In a world intent on raging about our differences, Nelson’s birthday served as a witness for love being the greatest commonality of all. Good friends, family, great music and respect for where each artist comes from, it all pointed to this wry songwriter who couldn’t make it happen in Nashville and headed to Texas to figure it out.

Trusting his vision, he’s stayed the course over decades of changes in tastes, styles and what defines genres. But always, he sought great collaborators – including musical director Don Was, the myriad guests and house band musicians ranging from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, East Nashville’s brilliant guitarist Audley Freed and the legendary gospel/soul singers the McCrary Sisters – and songs that struck a truth.

With so much life lived, no wonder this celebration stretches across two nights. But even if this first night was all there was, it’s a dazzling tribute to a man who redefined what was possible, maintained his dignity and just kept making music with his friends.