Live Music: Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

An extraordinarily well-planned performance at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night opened with a delightful appearance by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.  Lovett’s far-ranging career has reached from acting to music, with a variety of stops in between.

Lyle Lovett
Lyle Lovett

But heard in a wide open, Hollywood Bowl setting, driven by the jazz  rhythms and crisp arrangements of his Large Band, the appealing essence of his music was crisp and clear.

Each of Lovett’s numerous musical characteristics — from his stellar songwriting to the settings he’s chosen, to the sardonic, between-songs remarks – were at the heart of his vividly alive performance. Listening to – and immensely enjoying – every moment of Lovett’s set triggered the desire to hear this too rarely heard artist in action again, at every opportunity.

The evening’s headliner, Willie Nelson, brought a similarly appealing program of songs to the Bowl.

Examples of well-established pop and rock artist turning to the pleasures of the Great American Songbook for new material for expression haven’t exactly been uncommon in recent  years.  (Think Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and others.)

But they were preceded as long ago as the late-‘70s by Nelson’s Stardust, a platinum album that hit the charts in genres reaching from country music to pop.

At the Bowl on Friday, a highly enthusiastic packed house audience had the singular opportunity to hear Nelson perform a program of songs from the entire album, assisted by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by David Campbell.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson

It would be hard to ask for a better brief collection of classic songs than Nelson chose for the album – and for this performance.  Some had special meaning.  “Georgia On My Mind,” for example, is a song already favored by both country and r&b artists.  “September Song,” with its poetic references to the time between “May and December” was a perfect vehicle of expression for the 80 year old Nelson.

Other tunes – the poignant “Moonlight in Vermont,” followed by “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” provided lush orchestral settings for Nelson’s sometimes gravelly, always deeply interpretive vocals.

And when he concluded the Stardust part of the program, Nelson added another entertaining group of his own songs, including such familiar items as “Crazy” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”  And climaxing with a Nelson tune whimsically – but perhaps pointedly – titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Nelson sang in such a charming manner that the combination of his unique vocal timbres with a collection of such familiar, much-loved songs should have resulted in a memorable evening of music.  And to some extent, it did, largely because of the superb orchestral backing, arranged by Campbell.

The only problem in the Nelson set was largely created by his own interpretive ambitions.  Presumably eager to approach the lyrics in a poetically expressive manner, he often jumped quickly to the end of a phrase.  Occasionally the technique produced the pointed lyric results he was seeking.  More often, however, it positioned a song’s melody in an inaccurate relationship to its harmonic progression.

That said, there’s no argument with Nelson’s overall performance, nor with the charismatic qualities he brought to his unique view of the Great American Songbook.

3 thoughts on “Live Music: Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett at the Hollywood Bowl

  1. well said don, but noteworthy is the coup by the LA Philharmonic: this was the FIRST time Willie performed “Stardust” in its entirety live AND his 1st EVER concert with a full orchestra. i refer to it as Willie Nelson’s Exclamation Point! a fitting cap to his iconic career.
    i found his performance of “Unchained Melody” to be the amazing highlight with his “father-time-inflected” reading of “Funny How Time Slips Away” a close 2nd. hearing the 1st ever performance of WIllie singing “Crazy” with an orchestra was similarly off-the-chart.
    shame on the state of Texas for never according Willie such an opportunity, but what a treat it was for 17,000 lucky Angelenos. it was wonderful to see Willie and his alter ego, harmonica player Mickey Raphael share this opportunity. one is reminded what a rare partnership they have forged during more than 40 years playing together. that voice and that harmonica–inseparable and
    linked like one musical soul, together they are the sound of willie nelson.

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  2. I attended the Hollywood Bowl concert and found Lyle Lovett’s Large Band musical presentation a revelation. His performance could not be stereotyped as country, but included solid blues and straight ahead progressive jazz. Some of the audience members wearing faux cowboy hats (all hat; no cattle) near me might not have appreciated his versatility, but he led a masterful demonstration of musical accomplishment that defied classification.

    Alas, Mr. Nelson–an artist whose sweet voice I have always enjoyed–often suffered through a performance in which his ability to hit and hold a note was seriously challenged. You very tactfully and kindly wrote that he “often jumped quickly to the end of a phrase” which sometimes wounded the song’s melody” which sometimes placed the “song’s melody in an inaccurate relationship to its harmonic progression.” In my observation, however, he frequently was out of breath and also seemed unable to reach the full range of notes required by his selection of songs from the great American songbook. Make no mistake: I admire Willie Nelson’s interpretation of American standards but his voice no longer allows him the command demanded by such material. In a disappointing moment, Mr. Nelson urged the audience to join in singing “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and found that the audience had stronger voices than his own. I am not craving the “good old days,” but I saw him just a few years ago with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and his breath control and pitch were spot on. The last few years have been difficult on this musician’s voice. Years ago I recall seeing Peggy Lee in one of her last performances. One felt sorry that she could not find or hold the notes that gave her fame, Yet, she owed too much money to retire from professional performances even though her perfect pitch must have told her that it was time. I had the same feeling for Willie Nelson in this concert. I value what he has done, but I am sorry that he seemed to have stayed too long at the fair.

    By the way, your review was the only one I read that had the temerity to write anything substantive about Willie Nelson’s actual performance. Others described crowd reactions and listed many of his performed songs.

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    1. i agree with you completely about Lyle’s performance. I think you are being a little harsh on Mr. Nelson. He is a living legend and was 80 years old at the time of this performance. He deserves a little wiggle room, I’m sorry you feel he stayed too long at the fair.
      I considered this show a major highlight among thousands of concerts i’ve seen.

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