As Coachella-goers melted into the Indio desert, the Greek flung its doors open for an old-fashioned country love-in. The result was a starry, sold-out evening as intimate as a back-porch jam session and quite possibly the largest collection of un-ironically worn cowboy hats south of Bakersfield and west of Abilene.
Tender-hearted tough girl Shelby Lynne laid the groundwork for Nelson’s marathon 30-song set. She focused on tracks from her gritty, confessional new record Suit Yourself. She brought the long, freestyle jam “I Cry Everyday” to life and soaked up the spotlight on the melancholy track “Old Times Sake.” Her set even included special guest/backing vocalist Maxine Waters, a longtime fixture in the blues- and- gospel scenes and frequent member of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. Shelby’s best move, however, was to usher in one country legend by paying tribute to another. She closed with her sweet ballad “Johnny Met June,” a tribute to the Cashes and one of the best new songs in any genre this year. Small and slender in blue jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, Shelby even cracked a smile—twice.
Much of the mainstream perceives Willie Nelson as a stoned uncle with a trademark beatific smile and long horsehair braids—no doubt typified by his performance as Uncle Jessie in the upcoming Dukes of Hazard movie. Luckily, his birthday celebration had nothing to do with any image. It turned out to be a tribute to one of the most talented American songwriters of the last half-century.
Nelson was greeted by the unfurling of a Texas state flag almost as enormous as the audience’s applause and standing ovation. Accompanied by a 10-piece band, he played classics like “Whiskey River” and effortlessly jumped from jazz to blues, rock and then bluegrass. He even used his facility with multiple genres to reinterpret his most well-known songs, playing a jazzy rendition of “Crazy” and covering “Rainbow Connection” as a heartbreaking torch song.
And then there were the friends and family. Nelson’s little sister Bobbie soloed on piano and his sons Lukas and Micah contributed guitar and drums respectively. Willie even stepped aside for Lukas’ extended performance on “Texas Flood.” The kid is a guitar virtuoso, but his young voice sounded a little green crooning the blues.
The band kept swelling with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen joining in to play with the birthday boy. When Shelby Lynne returned to lend vocal support, over a dozen incredible musicians were jamming in perfect harmony. As the music shifted into old gospel tunes “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” everything seemed right with the world.
But wait, what was that tumbleweed of blonde hair bobbing onto the stage? What could possibly ruin the climax of such a happy occasion? None other than Willie’s Dukes of Hazard co-star, Jessica “Short Shorts” Simpson. Greeting the crowd with a chipper “Howdy, y’all!,” she caterwauled into the middle of “Amazing Grace” and led the Greek Theater crowd in “Happy Birthday.” Surely, a recipient of the Kennedy Center honor deserves better than to be serenaded by the star of The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour. And yes, the Texas-born Simpson has genuine Southern roots, but the consensus in the crowd was that she get off the damn stage.
And get off she did when her pleas for an encore of the Birthday Song were ignored. The specter of bubblegum pop gone, Willie and his Friends played deep into the night, rocking a legend into his 72nd year.