The Austin Chronicle

Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Tribute Convenes Keith Richards, Snoop Dogg, Norah Jones, and More at the Hollywood Bowl

By Doug Freeman, May 1, 2023, 4:05pm, Earache!

Beyond the songs, Willie Nelson’s greatest legacy may be as a convener. From bringing together Austin’s hippies and cowboys in the Seventies to his endless commitment to collaborations and sharing spotlights with the next generations, Willie is a catalyzing force. The songwriter’s remarkable 90th birthday celebration thus called for an equally remarkable lineup.

The stars summoned to fête the Texas icon at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles over the past weekend were not just testament to Nelson’s influence, but a broad cast pulling from his many cornerstone events over the decades. Artists from Farm Aids, 4th of July Picnics, Luck Reunions, and his most recent Outlaw Music Festival tours all represented, for perhaps the biggest Willie bash of the century.

Spanning Keith Richards to Billy Strings, the occasion called for stoner sentiments, Nelson family collaborations, and an encyclopedia setlist of songs. The filmed event was produced by Blackbird Presents, which released a five-hour documentary on Nelson’s life at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Two tributes, April 29 and 30, ran sharply behind Don Was’ musical direction, with rapid changes between the expansive roll call of artists.

Most delivered songs from Nelson’s extensive catalog with a few notable exceptions, like Norah Jones keying “Down Yonder” in tribute to Nelson’s Sister Bobbie, who passed in 2022, on both nights. Warren Haynes ripped “Midnight Rider,” while Neil Young and Stephen Stills reunited for “Long May You Run” and “For What It’s Worth.” But the emotional highlight of each evening came with the emergence of a beaming Kris Kristofferson, anchored by Rosanne Cash through “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” and lovingly led by Jones on “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

Son Lukas Nelson also brought the sold-out, 17,500-capacity crowd to silence both nights with a stunning acoustic turn of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

High points rolled fast and furious from the outset of the first night, with bluegrass jammer Billy Strings slinging the requisite “Whiskey River” invocation. As Particle Kid, Micah Nelson summoned his dad’s “The Ghost” with Daniel Lanois on steel, Beck steered “Hands on the Wheel,” and Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff dueted “I Can Get You Off On You.”

Texas heavily represented behind Charley Crockett (“The Party’s Over”); Lyle Lovett (“Hello Walls”); Edie Brickell and Charlie Sexton (“Remember Me”); the Chicks (a romping “Bloody Mary Morning”); Miranda Lambert (“Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”); and Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr. smoking “Night Life” into the SRV nod of “Texas Flood.”

Mid-set wild cards dealt some hit-or-miss reach, led by Jack Johnson’s high-humored “Willie Got Me Stoned,” which he repeated on night two. Ziggy Marley rasta’d “Still Is Still Moving to Me” to Tom Jones’ less-primed “Opportunity to Cry,” while Bob Weir received deep love despite a somewhat meandering “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” with Strings on guitar.

Tyler Childers slayed though, leveling his crooked, creaking twang for “Healing Hands of Time” and hard-religion howl on “Time of the Preacher.” And a soulful, low-crooning country cadre of men – Jamey Johnson, Rateliff, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton – served an exquisite run, beginning with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” by Johnson. When Willie finally walked out to join Young on “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” the amphitheater exploded in appreciation.

The seated celebrant sounded fresh from the start. With Lukas and Micah backing, Young ceded the stage to George Strait to reprise last year’s birthday bash at Moody Center, dueting “Sing One With Willie” and “Pancho and Lefty.” Snoop Dogg’s involvement for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” somewhat predictably went the way of the blunt the rapper puffed while onstage – unraveling almost immediately to the entire crowd’s delight.

Willie then took over with “On the Road Again” and led the cavalcade of stars into the familiar gospel medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken / I’ll Fly Away.” After the audience saluted with “Happy Birthday,” the honoree snuck in “It’s Hard to Be Humble” before the strict curfew hit.

Throughout, presenters emphasized Nelson as a humanitarian and deeply committed friend and family member. Ethan Hawke and Owen Wilson led the Texas delegation, of which there seemed a large contingent in the California crowd. The second night rolled much looser as artists took more time on anecdotes, and Woody Harrelson’s speech epitomized just how much weed was being smoked backstage.

Orville Peck set the tone early for the more laid back Sunday vibe, following Strings’ “Whiskey River” with “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other.” Jones and Allison Russell elevated “Seven Spanish Angels,” and Dwight Yoakam gave a sincere intro to Nelson and his longtime drummer before “Me and Paul.”

The repeat performers all seemed more comfortable, especially San Benito, Tex., original Crockett on “Yesterday’s Wine.” Taking on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Beck recalled Nelson’s willingness to join his 1997 video for “Jack-Ass.” The Lumineers followed the previous night’s “A Song For You” with an equally beautiful cut of “Pretty Paper,” and Micah Nelson’s “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven)” hit superbly, supported again by Lanois.

Emmylou Harris joined Rodney Crowell for his “It Ain’t Over Yet” (with Waylon Payne) and “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” before later mesmerizing “The Maker” with Lanois. And the Avett Brothers double-barrelled “Pick Up the Tempo” and “Heaven and Hell” to Sheryl Crow’s “Crazy” and Dave Matthews’ rendering “Funny How Time Slips Away” as his own.

The surprise standout moments came from the next generation though, with Shooter Jennings and Lukas doing their fathers’ “Good Hearted Woman,” and Cash and Micah joining to remake “Highwayman.”

After Jamey Johnson marveled an extraordinary “Georgia on My Mind” with Booker T. Jones and Warren Haynes, Willie emerged to slice a gorgeous “Stardust” and run through a number of duets with Crow, Lily Meola, and producer Buddy Cannon. Notably, the Red Headed Stranger and Strings ripped through their new collaboration, “California Sober.” Finally, Keith Richards played unannounced as a special guest, jovial alongside all of the Nelsons for “We Had It All” and, aptly, “Live Forever.”

By the final closing medley, Nelson at 90 seemed not only fully returned to road form after shaking off the COVID years, but vital as ever. One day Trigger will hang in the Smithsonian, but not anytime soon.

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