Willie Nelson Duets With Keith Richards, Billy Strings and Sheryl Crow on Night 2 of Hollywood Bowl Birthday Salute
Keith Richards was the surprise unannounced guest for night 2 of Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday tribute at the Hollywood Bowl — a surprise, at least, for anyone who hadn’t spotted his name listed in the fine print on the souvenir posters and T-shirts. The Stone rolled in with his signature line of recent decades: “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere.” Richards (79) and Nelson (you’d have to be really high not to know his age) then followed with two covers appropriate for gents of a certain maturity: “We Had It All” and “Live Forever.” The latter song probably wasn’t written by Billy Joe Shaver to be understood literally, but Sunday night, it sure felt that way.
Nelson’s 90th birthday was such a momentous event in pop culture, it merited the two-night treatment it got at the Bowl, filmed by producer Blackbird Presents for theatrical release as well as home video. The actual birthday had come the night before, on Saturday, but as son Micah Nelson said at the beginning of Sunday’s show: “Welcome to the after-birth party.” The biggest difference from night 1, apart from many different guests and most different songs, was the increased presence of the birthday boy himself on stage, for the last 40 minutes of the three-hour-and-40-minute show. Besides Richards, Nelson also participated in collaborations with Sheryl Crow, Billy Strings, his producer Buddy Cannon, Lily Meola and (instrumentally) Booker T.
Willie’s mini-set at the end of Sunday night felt like such a relaxed coda to the nearly eight hours of music that spread across two nights, you might’ve wished the party could live forever, even if he can’t. Nelson joked that it might. “Same time tomorrow night,” he quipped at the end of the night.
Apart from Nelson closing the show with “On the Road Again” and being joined by the full cast for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away,” only four performances were carryovers from the previous night: Strings’ show-opening “Whiskey River,” Jack Johnson’s autobiographical “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money,” Norah Jones’ quick instrumental tribute to Willie’s sister Bobbi Nelson with an instrumental “Down Yonder,” and Lukas Nelson’s superlative reading of his dad’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” A fair amount of the tunes were carried over from Saturday night, however, now with different performers — like Dave Matthews doing “Funny How Time Slips Away” instead of night 1’s Norah Jones; Warren Haynes doing “Night Life” in place of an initial cover by Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr.; and Rosanne Cash doing “Pancho and Lefty” instead of night 1’s reading by Nelson himself with George Strait.
Artists who came to the party Sunday who hadn’t appeared the previous night included Richards, Matthews, Crow, Orville Peck (who naturally covered Nelson’s gay-themed “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”), Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Allison Russell, Rodney Crowell and the Avett Brothers. Not returning from night 1 were Strait, Snoop Dogg, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, the Chicks, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Bridges, Clark, Ziggy Marley, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Edie Brickell.
Doing double duty by appearing both nights, but with different material: Margo Price, Beck, Tom Jones, Norah Jones, Bob Weir, the Lumineers, Lovett, Cash, Kristofferson, Warren Haynes, Jamey Johnson, Nathaniel Rateliff and Nelson’s sons Micah (under the alias Particle Kid) and Lukas.
Prior to the man of the hour making his appearance at 9:30 p.m. (three hours into a show that began at 6:30), four clear highlights stood out.
Dave Matthews’ take on “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a subtle revelation. The previous night, Norah Jones had given the rueful ballad the soothing treatment it usually gets — and that one was a highlight of its own night. But Matthews didn’t shy away from the uneasiness in the lyric, as most interpreters do, but rather underscored them with a tone that almost went beyond melancholy to faintly menacing, skipping up into his falsetto in the chorus for an effect that felt less sweet than bitter. Having a song made into more of an explicit downer than usual never felt so good. (Matthews prefaced the number with the same story so many performers told — about getting higher on Nelson’s bus than he ever imagined possible — but his was a particularly funny rendering of this tale as old as time.)
The one number so rousing it earned a spontaneous standing ovation before it had wrapped up had Jamey Johnson being joined by guitarist Warren Haynes for a “Georgia (on My Mind)” that was far grittier and less relaxed than most versions of that standard anyone might have heard before. It served as a reminder that, in a way of thinking, Jamey Johnson was Chris Stapleton before Chris Stapleton was Chris Stapleton, and should he choose to be, he could be again. (Well, not be Chris Stapleton, precisely, but you get the picture.) But this wasn’t just a triumph of the individual; though Johnson’s vocals alone might have brought down the house, Haynes’ guitar heroics sealed the deal — and the house band, led by bassist Don Was and sporting keyboardist Benmont Tench among the players, peaked here in a way that made you pay more attention to their humble solidity the rest of the night.
Lukas Nelson’s interpretation of dad’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” was as much of a knockout on night 2 as night 1 — if anything merited a rerun, it was this, and repeat patrons (which constituted almost everybody; tickets were sold as a two-fer) were glad to hear it a second time. The extent to which the younger Nelson vocally resembles the senior can’t be overstated, but if anything, he has just a bit more of the belter in him when he chooses to go for it, and the fact that he’s a strong guitar soloist without imitating Willie’s weird sense of syncopated soloing further establishes him as his own man even in paying direct homage. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” is one of the best songs ever written.
But the standout moment of the night — Willie Nelson’s own extended climax notwithstanding — was the duet between Kristofferson and Norah Jones on “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The previous night, the 86-year-old legend had sung “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” with Rosanne Cash, and that was a highlight, too, but part of why it was so emotional was wondering whether she could help him make it through the song, since his voice is so fragile. It’s hard to say exactly why Sunday night’s duet with Jones felt even more powerful, but Jones managed to find a way to establish a real harmony with Kristofferson, even in his tentative vocal state — they actually seemed to stick a landing together, with her very sweetly at the controls. If that ends up being anyone’s last memory of Kristofferson on a stage, it’ll be a great one.
The fact that Cash was not performing with her spiritual uncle, Kristofferson, on Sunday like she had on Saturday was no indication that she was through with accentuating blood ties, anyway. Ingeniously, or maybe just inevitably, Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwayman” came up for a cover, and in place of Johnny Cash, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Nelson were Rosanne Cash, Scooter Jennings and Micah and Lukas Nelson. There was a sound glitch that kept it from being a grand slam, but that’ll probably get fixed in post, for the feature film that’s coming out.
Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings kept the scion thing going, speaking of two-timing, with a revival of their respective papas’ “Good Hearted Woman.”
Norah Jones also contributed harmony to another high point, Allison Russell’s reading of “Seven Spanish Angels,” which proved that two angels is plenty. Other rich collaborations abounded: Margo Price first joining Waylon Payne for a tambourine-shaking “Georgia on a Fast Train,” then sitting in with Weir and Strings for “Stay All Night”; Emmylou Harris and guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois teaming up for an ethereally rocking “The Maker”; and Harris joining Rodney Crowell for “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” (Crowell told the story of how he knew he’d made it as a songwriter decades back when he went to the Palomino and Nelson name-checked him before launching into that song.)
The honoree was generous with his time at the end, making almost every number into a true duet. Foremost among these was his hookup with Strings on “California Sober,” a comic, distinctly bluegrass-flavored scorcher that was only two days old as a record, having just been released on Friday. Lily Meola, of “America’s Got Talent” fame, was one of the lesser known acts on the bill, but Nelson elevated her with a lovely “Will You Remember Mine.” (He laughed a bit, after a line about thinking about her kisses. Was the chuckle in acknowledgement of the potential humor in their 63-year age difference, or their being old family friends?)
As for Crow, after she scored a solo hit with one of the most famous songs in Nelson’s catalog, “Crazy,” it was a delight to have her get a RBI by Nelson inviting her to sit in with him on the lesser-known “Faraway Places.” He was benevolent in giving his producer for almost his last 20 albums, Buddy Cannon, a rare performing spot on “Something You Get Through,” one of the most candid songs about mortality and grief anyone has recorded in recent years. But — going from dust-to-dust to stardust — there might not have been a sweeter pairing in Nelson’s portion of the night than him hooking up again with Booker T. Jones, who produced his landmark “Stardust” album of standards in 1978, for a resurrection of that LP’s title song.
When “Happy Birthday” finally got sung again, for the second time in two nights, Nelson seemed almost startled, as if he’d already landed the plane and there was no need to belabor the offloading with self-glorifying sentimentality. His next gig may not be “same time tomorrow,” but he’ll be on the road again starting in just over two weeks in Iowa. Based on his two nights performing at the Bowl, there won’t need to be any handicapping for age in his singing or guitar soloing as he settles back into routine — he’s the most astonishing envelope-pusher we’ve got right now. Out on the road again, even with Dame Helen Mirren around to do any introductory honors, stardust will surely be in the air.
Willie Nelson tribute at the Hollywood Bowl night 2 setlist:
Billy Strings: “Whiskey River,” “I Gotta Get Drunk”
Orville Peck: “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”
Charley Crockett: “Yesterday’s Wine”
Allison Russell with Norah Jones: “Seven Spanish Angels”
Dwight Yoakam: “Me and Paul”
Margo Price and Waylon Payne: “Georgia on a Fast Train”
Particle Kid with Daniel Lanois: “(Die When I’m High) Halfway to Heaven”
Rodney Crowell: “It Ain’t Over Yet”
Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris: “’Til I Gain Control Again”
Rosanne Cash: “Pancho and Lefty”
Warren Haynes: “Night Life”
Lyle Lovett: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”
Jack Johnson: “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money”
Beck: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
Tom Jones: “Across the Borderline”
Bob Weir with Margo Price: “Stay a Little Longer”
Shooter Jennings: “Good Hearted Woman”
The Avett Brothers: “Pick Up the Tempo,” “Heaven and Hell”
The Lumineers: “Pretty Paper”
Norah Jones: “Down Yonder”
Norah Jones and Kris Kristofferson: “Help Me Make It Through the Night”
Nathaniel Rateliff: “A Song for You”
Sheryl Crow: “Crazy”
Dave Matthews: “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois: “The Maker”
Jamey Johnson with Warren Haynes and Booker T.: “Georgia (On My Mind)”
Rosanne Cash, Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson: “Highwaymen”
Willie Nelson with Booker T.: “Stardust”
Willie Nelson with Sheryl Crow: “Faraway Places”
Willie Nelson with Lily Meola: “Will You Remember Mine”
Willie Nelson with Buddy Cannon: “Something You Get Through”
Willie Nelson with Billy Strings: “California Sober”
Willie Nelson with Keith Richards: “We Had It All,” “Live Forever”
Willie Nelson with cast: “On the Road Again,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away,”
“Happy Birthday to You”
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