Just call them the Rolling Stoners.
You know you’re musical royalty 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 79, Richards was the younger of this pair of living legends, and the two harmonized sweetly on two songs: Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All” and the late outlaw Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” especially poignant with its refrain, “Just like the songs , that I leave behind / Now I’ll live forever.”
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 evening’s celebration.
Earlier in the set, giant puffs of smoke were billowed against the Bowl band as Jack Johnson regaled the crowd with stories of Nelson losing poker games 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 will be a common theme throughout the night. Dave Matthews, who admitted he was nervous in the presence of so many musical titans, recalled meeting Nelson 30 years ago while playing at Farm Aid, then being invited to join the country legend on his tour bus for a marathon session for smoking.
“When I thought it couldn’t go any further, it had barely started,” Matthews said. (A commemorative photo of the moment graces his proud mother’s mantelpiece.) He then delivered a magnificent rendition of Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Woody Harrelson was also in attendance in a cowboy hat to introduce a few big names – Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead – who performed the western swing classic “Stay a Little Longer” – and later Willie himself, who snuck up on him from behind.
( Plumbers in the White House star couldn’t resist popping into his West Hollywood weed dispensary, The Woods, just like he did during Saturday Night Live monologue in February.)
Ethan Hawke, in a peach satin suit, and Helen Mirren, wearing Nelson’s cowboy hat, also made occasional appearances to introduce artists as diverse as Beck, Tom Jones, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones (who performed a touching duet with Chris Kristofferson, 86, for Kristofferson’s popular romantic ballad “Help Me Make it Through the Night”) and Sheryl Crow.
Crowe recalled Kristofferson’s advice to her, whispered backstage at New York’s Beacon Theater 27 years ago, to shine alongside Nelson: “Don’t try to sing with him — just sing louder than him.”
Other sparkling moments included next-generation (just don’t call them non-babies) country stars Shooter Jennings, a dead ringer for his father Waylon, and Lucas Nelson, Willie’s boy, dueting on “Good Hearted Woman,” a song written by their fathers in 1971
The boys reappeared a little later with Micah Nelson, Willie’s youngest, and Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, for a performance of “Highwayman,” the song that in 1985 inspired the formation of the supergroup The Highwaymen by the respective their fathers and Kristofferson.
By the time everyone came out for “On the Road Again” and then sang along to “Happy Birthday to You,” the Bowl’s band decked out in a projection of Old Glory was a rare moment of patriotic pride from a true national treasure.
Nelson deserves nothing less.