LOS ANGELES — It’s not much of an exaggeration — and yet it defies logic — to say that you could trace the history of American music’s past 100 years during the two nights of Willie Nelson 90: Long Story Short at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend.
Jazz, country, gospel, blues, rock, Nashville pop, Americana, even hip-hop (well, he smokes with Snoop) are all seamlessly part of Nelson’s DNA, and all were represented over the dozens of tributes paid to Nelson as he turned 90.
With more than 45 artists taking the stage to honor Willie, it’s hard to choose just 10 outstanding moments, but these stood out, musically and emotionally.
1. Beck (Saturday)
Beck countrified his “Sea Change” sound for “Hands on the Wheel,” from 1975’s “Red Headed Stranger.” People really underestimate Beck as a singer, but this tune was a perfect match for his range, light soulfulness and way with phrasing.
2. Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson (Saturday)
A standing ovation from the crowd for 86-year-old Kristofferson, who joined Cash to sing “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Kristofferson, who has attributed his well-documented memory troubles to Lyme disease, was a bit shaky yet movingly determined as he traded lines with Cash, whose father, Johnny, famously played with Kristofferson in the Highwaymen. Very poignant.
3. Sturgill Simpson (Saturday)
Best banter of the night came from Simpson, who told the audience, “There’s only one reason I’m not on a beach in South Asia right now, and that’s Willie Nelson.” He went on to confess something he said 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 added, that exist “outside of the box of what most people think country records can be.” Then he said 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 was 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.
4. Chris Stapleton (Saturday)
When you’ve got 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.
5. George Strait and Willie Nelson (Saturday)
It made sense that Strait and Nelson opened with their 2019 novelty tune “Sing One With Willie.” If there’s anything we know about Nelson, it’s that he loves to yuk it up. Strait is noticeably clean-cut compared to Nelson and many who graced this stage tonight, but that speaks to Willie’s range and the wide swatch of humanity that loves him. It was also a true delight to hear famously straight-laced 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.
6. Allison Russell and Norah Jones (Sunday)
Russell sang “Seven Spanish Angels” — the gospel-soul gem Willie cut with Ray Charles in the early ‘80s — with Norah Jones on piano and harmony vocals. Jones’ presence was a good reminder of the fact that as much as he’s a country singer, Willie is a jazz vocalist — a master of timing, of salty passing tones, of the brilliant ad lib that you never saw coming (but couldn’t forget once you did).
7. Lukas Nelson (Sunday)
Nelson did “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” on Saturday, and it was solid. Tonight, though, Willie’s son seemed touched by a little of what his dad has long been tuned into: This was searching, soulful, downright celestial — maybe the best performance of the weekend.
8. Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois (Sunday)
“The Maker,” Lanois’ 1989 epic centered on a lyrical spirit quest, received a gorgeous treatment from Harris and its author tonight, she on acoustic guitar and he on sparkling electric.
9. Sheryl Crow (Sunday)
Crow said that 27 years ago she was getting ready to go on stage with Willie Nelson at the Beacon Theatre in New York, and she was nervous. “Kris Kristofferson says, “Don’t try to sing with him, just sing louder than him,” she recalled, laughing, before adding that Willie’s the only person who’s ever offered her dad a joint! Her version of “Crazy,” Nelson’s lil tune that helped make Patsy Cline a star, brought the crowd to its feet, her honeyed delivery less acrobatic than Cline’s but no less poignant and magical.
10. Keith Richards (Sunday)
The weekend’s A-listiest guest, Richards was beaming in a leather jacket and bandanna, telling the crowd, “It’s good to be here — it’s good to be anywhere.” Willie and Keith teamed on a beautifully crusty version of Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All,” which sounded about a million years old, and Billy Joe Shaver’s very aptly titled “Live Forever.”