Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Concert: Weed, Well Wishes and Tons of Songs
On an overcast night inside the Hollywood Bowl on April 29, the crowd had barely found their seats when Billy Strings and the band launched into “Whiskey River” at 7 p.m. sharp. After all, this was Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday bash — and no one wanted to waste time.
The Red Headed Stranger might’ve been over a thousand miles away from Spicewood, Texas, but for four hours on a Saturday night, a birthday celebration at the Bowl felt just like partying at home with close friends and family gathered around, crooning new tunes and familiar classics all night long. (If your friends are some of the most badass, talented artists in the world, that is).
For the country icon’s first of two back-to-back birthday concerts, officially dubbed Long Story Short: Willie 90, Willie called up some of his closest crew to ring in another year around the sun, with longtime collaborators, rock legends, and members of his Family Band alike on the bill.
On the lineup: Beck, Allison Russell, producer Buddy Cannon, Ziggy Marley, Stagecoach headliner Chris Stapleton, Dwight Yoakam, Dave Matthews, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Edie Brickell, Bob Weir, Sturgill Simpson, the Lumineers, Emmylou Harris, Jack Johnson, Gary Clark Jr., Jamey Johnson, Leon Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Lyle Lovett, Neil Young, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, Rosanne Cash, the Chicks, Tyler Childers, Stephen Stills, Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah (Particle Kid), and George Strait, who’d perform two songs with Willie on day one, including “Pancho and Lefty” near the end of the celebration.
The night played out like a country music marathon and a TV special-in-the-making — presenters including Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Garner, Oscar winner Helen Mirren, and Willie’s pal Owen Wilson graced the stage to introduce the different acts — as the lineup ran through Willie’s extensive catalogue of tunes at a fast pace, trying to fit a head-spinning amount of hits and deep cuts into the first night.
To kick off the show, Strings took the stage for a rendition of Willie’s trademark opening number, followed by “Stay All Night.” After the “California Sober” singer-guitarist’s set, Hawke walked out to introduce “a brilliant member of another generation carrying on that Willie tradition, another straight-shootin’ Texan, one of my personal favorites, the soon-to-be-legend,” Charley Crockett.
“I’d like to dedicate my version of this Willie Nelson song to the Virginia State policeman that pulled me out of my car, busted me, gave me a couple of felonies, and he asked me to play a country song for him on my Telecaster, and I swear, as I’m standing here by God’s grace, the only song I could remember was this one right here. It goes something like this,” Crockett said, before playing “The Party’s Over.”
“He’s the reason I record records at such a frequent pace,” Crockett told Rolling Stone on the red carpet before the concert. “He’s the reason I tell record executives so often, don’t let the door hit ‘em on the way out. It’s because of Willie. He is the blueprint.”
Particle Kid would follow Crockett’s performance with a cut from the same 1967 album alongside producer Daniel Lanois for “Ghost.” Next, Charlie Sexton joined Edie Brickell for “Remember Me,” with Lyle Lovett taking the stage shortly after for what he called “the perfect” song, “Hello Walls.”
“Willie’s music is like the bible,” Lovett told RS earlier in the night. “To listen to a Willie Nelson song gives you one kind of education, to learn a Willie Nelson song expands it exponentially… The economy of words, his imagery, the simplicity of language and complexity of thought — it’s all in his songs.”
Minutes later the crowd was transported to 1978 thanks to Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff’s grooving ode to Waylon Jennings’ and Willie’s “I Can Get Off on You.”
Nearly an hour after the show began, Mirren appeared onstage to announce Norah Jones.
“I’m so happy to be here,” Jones told the crowd. “I love Willie so much, so so very much, and everyone in his world so very much. And that includes Bobbie Nelson — one of my favorite piano players. Here we go, this one’s for Bobbie.” Sitting at the piano, the Grammy winner and longtime Willie collaborator breezed through “Down Yonder,” a rollicking piano tribute to Willie’s older sister and Family Band member, who died last year at 91.
The night featured no shortage of nods to the Highwaymen — the supergroup of Willie, Waylon, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson: Jamey Johnson performed Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” which the Highwaymen cut for their 1995 album The Road Goes on Forever, and Rosanne Cash sang “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” with the guy who wrote it, Kristofferson himself.
“They loved each other like brothers — Willie, Waylon, Kris, and my dad,” Cash told Rolling Stone earlier that afternoon before the show started. “And Willie and Kris are the last guys standing … I keep getting overwhelmed by that.”
After Kristofferson and Cash walked offstage together, Lukas Nelson stood in the center, guitar in hand, for one of the night’s best and most intimate moments, a stirring solo performance of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” off the 1980 soundtrack to Honeysuckle Rose.
Leon Bridges followed with the Seventies standard “Night Life” with Gary Clark Jr., who stayed for another song, asking the crowd, “Can I turn up a little bit?” The Bowl cheered. “I don’t want to be disrespectful,” he said, plucking away at the first notes of “Texas Flood.” Then Jack Johnson took L.A. on a comedy tour and got laughs after every verse with “Willie Got Me Stoned (and He Took All My Money),” an original about losing your mind and your cash while playing poker with Willie.
The Chicks, introduced by Garner, commanded one of the loudest cheers from the crowd all night before they tore through “Bloody Mary Morning,” adding some punk energy to the already rollicking Willie staple.
Around the 9:30 mark, Sturgill Simpson, who’s kept the lowest of profiles since releasing his last album, the Red Headed Stranger-inspired The Ballad of Dood and Juanita two years ago, emerged.
“There’s only one reason why I’m not on a beach in South Asia right now, and that’s ‘cause it’s Willie Nelson’s birthday,” Simpson joked. “I’m going to take a minute to say something that I’ve never had the courage to say to his face. And that is there’s only one reason I ever went to Nashville to make country records, and that’s ‘cause I grew up listening to country records made by Willie Nelson.
“I wanted to make country records that were outside the box from what most people think a country record can be,” he continued. “I only signed a record deal with Atlantic Records because Willie Nelson made those records on Atlantic. That didn’t work out too good for me, but everything else did thanks to you guys.”
The lights dimmed while Simpson strummed his acoustic guitar alone on the stage for “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a track written by Steven Fromholz and recorded by Willie. Simpson cut it for his own 2013 album High Top Mountain.
The hits kept rolling with Miranda Lambert, who got the crowd singing with “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the opening track to 1978’s Waylon & Willie. “The first songs I ever heard were Willie songs,” Lambert told Rolling Stone ahead of the show. “I feel like I’ve known Willie since I was born. But also seeing George Strait celebrate Willie along with the rest of us, just the impact he’s had on all of our heroes … He kept generations of us singers-songwriters going and inspired for all these years.”
Three hours into the show, Neil Young and Stephen Stills — “two titans of American music,” as Hawke described the duo — brought the house down with a medley of “Long May You Run” and “For What It’s Worth.” (Coincidentally, Young sang “Long May You Run” 10 years ago for Willie’s 80th birthday, a taping of CMT Crossroads at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville.)
And then there was Willie, arriving at one hell of a party in the middle of Young’s harmonica solo to join in on “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” off Young’s 1985 LP Old Ways.
Willie’s fellow toker Snoop Dogg arrived next for “Roll Me Up,” the pot anthem that imagines a baked final send-off: “Roll me up and smoke me when I die,” goes the chorus. Willie asked what key they were going to do the song in this time. “The key of smoke,” Snoop replied, as images of smoke creeped over the stage — and the crowd. “Anybody out there smoking tonight?” Snoop asked. “Roll one for Mr. Nelson.”
Before the party could end, there was one more Willie tradition to go: The evening’s performers — from Lambert to Price, Crockett to Rateliff — joined Willie, Lukas, and Micah onstage for a transcendent gospel medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” as the Bowl danced and sang the chorus together.
“Thank y’all” Willie said, his guitar Trigger in hand. “Happy birthday to me!” Not missing a beat, all of Hollywood seemed to break out into “Happy Birthday” in his honor.
But that wasn’t the end of the show — there was still just enough time for another tune before the Bowl’s strict 11 p.m. curfew. “Y’all gotta help us sing this,” Willie said of the final song, “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” written by “an old friend Mac Davis.”
“Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble / When you’re perfect in every way / I can’t wait to look in the mirror / ‘Cause I get better-looking each day / To know me is to love me / I must be a hell of a man / Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but we’re doing the best that we can.”
“Thank y’all for comin’ out to help us,” Willie said, with the American flag projected on the stage above him. “We’ll see you tomorrow night. We love you.”
Long Story Short: Willie 90 Night One Set List:
Billy Strings – “Whiskey River,” “Stay All Night”
Charley Crockett – “The Party’s Over”
Particle Kid & Daniel Lanois – “The Ghost”
Edie Brickell and Charlie Sexton – “Remember Me”
Lyle Lovett – “Hello Walls”
Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff – “I Can Get Off On You”
Beck – “Hands on the Wheel”
Norah Jones – “Down Yonder,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Warren Haynes – “Midnight Rider”
Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson – “Lovin’ Her Was Easier”
Lukas Nelson – “Angles Flying Too Close to the Ground”
Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr. – “Night Life”
Gary Clark Jr. – “Texas Flood”
Jack Johnson – “Willie Got Me Stoned”
Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps – “Healing Hands of Time,” “Time of the Preacher”
Ziggy Marley – “Still Is Still Moving to Me”
Tom Jones – “Opportunity to Cry”
Jamey Johnson – “Live Forever”
Bob Weir – “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
The Chicks with Keith Sewell – “Bloody Mary Morning”
The Lumineers – “A Song for You”
Nathaniel Rateliff – “City of New Orleans”
Sturgill Simpson – “I’d Have to Be Crazy”
Miranda Lambert – “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
Chris Stapleton – “The Last Thing I Needed,” “Always on My Mind”
Neil Young, Stephen Stills with Promise of the Real – “Long May You Run,” “For What It’s Worth”
Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Neil Young with POTR – “Are There Any More Real Cowboys”
George Strait and Willie Nelson – “Sing One With Willie,” “Pancho and Lefty”
Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson – “Roll Me Up”
Willie Nelson – “On the Road Again”
Group – “Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Happy Birthday,” “It’s Hard to Be Humble”