ack in 1978, when Willie Nelson released "Stardust," it seemed a little strange that a long-haired, outlaw country singer was recording songs by guys with last names like Gershwin and Berlin. Tonight, at the famed Hollywood Bowl, however, it didn't feel quite so unusual because we've come to appreciate that Nelson simply does anything he pleases, whenever he likes.
Nelson's voice, which has never been a pure singer's instrument, has lost some of its strength and agility over the years, and it's quite a revelation to compare the first of his two night Bowl performances with the original Booker T. Jones productions. It wasn't until Nelson reached the seventh song in the set with On the Sunny Side of the Street that the singer really started to sound confident. Slower, quieter songs, such as Stardust found Nelson looking a bit uncomfortable as he fought to keep his tone flowing smoothly. However, the faster numbers were much easier on his ripened vocal cords.
While it was wonderful to see and hear the godfather of Americana take on American standards, the highlight of this concert came at around the midpoint when Nelson sang some of his own standards. Backed by the full philharmonic on Funny How Time Slips Away and Crazy, and beautifully conducted by David Campbell, these alternative arrangements revealed extra nuance and the melodic depth within these special Nelson compositions. Hearing Nelson philosophize about the confusing concept of time during Funny How Time Slips Away, for instance, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Speaking of philosophy, the ever-philosophical Lyle Lovett opened this special night with a jazz-tinged set, which fit in perfectly with what was to come later. The first words out of Lovett's mouth were the spoken parts of Here I Am, and he concluded with a rousing version of That's Right (You're Not From Texas). In between, he sang favorites, like If I Had a Boat, and mused about the first time he came to Los Angeles. Traffic is so bad here, he reminded us, it forces newcomers to drive slowly, which makes it nearly impossible to get lost.
Tonight's show was like a gift to anyone that loves songwriting because both Nelson and Lovett each appreciate the true value of a great song, no matter what era it may have come from. Even though Nelson's not the singer he once was (but heck, he's still touring and looking healthy at 80!), when he introduced Moonlight in Vermont, it was a reminder that we lucky Bowl concert-goers were getting the rare opportunity to hear Willie share a few of his favorite things.