Just call them the Rolling Stoners.
You know you’re a music queen when Keith Richards shows up to pay his respects. And the Rolling Stones icon was on hand Sunday for the second and final night of Willie Nelson’s epic 90th birthday concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
At age 79, Richards was the younger in this combination of living legends, and the two sweetly harmonized on two tracks: Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All” and the late outlaw Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever”, particularly poignant with its chorus, “Like the songs I’m leaving behind / I’m gonna live forever, now.”
The Richards surprise came shortly after 10 p.m. on this cool, overcast night in the hills above Hollywood, nearly three and a half hours into the night’s party.
Earlier in the set, giant plumes of smoke were projected against the Bowl band shell as Jack Johnson regaled the audience with tales of losing poker games to Nelson in his home state of Hawaii, a memory that inspired him to write the song “Willie Got Me Stoned.” and took all my money.”
Marijuana would be a common theme throughout the night. Dave Matthews, who admitted to being nervous in the presence of so many musical titans, recalled meeting Nelson 30 years ago when he played at Farm Aid and then being invited to join the country legend on his tour bus for a marathon smoking session.
“When I thought it couldn’t go on like this, it was just getting started,” said Matthews. (A photo commemorating the moment adorns his proud mother’s mantelpiece.) He then performed a beautiful rendition of Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Woody Harrelson was also on hand in a cowboy hat to introduce some big names – Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead – who performed the Western swing classic “Stay a Little Longer” – and later Willie himself, who snuck in on him from behind .
(The Plumbers in the White House star couldn’t resist putting a plug in his West Hollywood weed dispenser, The Woods, just like he did during his Saturday Night Live monologue in February.)
Ethan Hawke, in a peach satin suit, and Helen Mirren, wearing Nelson’s own cowboy hat, also popped up occasionally to introduce performers as diverse as Beck, Tom Jones, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones (who performed a moving duet with Kris Kristofferson, 86, on Kristofferson’s popular romantic ballad “Help Me Make it Through the Night”), and Sheryl Crow.
Crow recalled Kristofferson’s advice to her, whispered backstage at New York’s Beacon Theater 27 years ago, to star alongside Nelson: “Don’t try to sing with him — just sing louder than he does.”
Other sparkly moments included next-generation country stars (don’t call them fake babies), Shooter Jennings, a dead ringer for his father Waylon, and Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son, who duetted in “Good Hearted Woman,” written by their fathers in 1971.
Moments later, the boys re-emerged with Micah Nelson, Willie’s youngest, and Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, for a rendition of “Highwayman,” the song that inspired the formation of supergroup The Highwaymen in 1985 by their respective fathers and Kristofferson.
By the time everyone came out for “On the Road Again” and then a sing-along of “Happy Birthday to You,” the Bowl band shell adorned with a projection of Old Glory, it was a rare moment of patriotic pride in a true national treasure.
Nelson deserves nothing less.