by Chris Vasseur
Chandler and Monica, two of my dearest friends, recently took my partner and I on the trip of a lifetime. And by recently I mean I’m sitting on a plane bound for adventure as I start this essay. Or is it a Journal? Doesn’t matter, the point is I’ve decided to document the biggest concert event I’ve ever been to and NSMZ has graciously allowed me to publish it. My partner Jess (asleep in the seat beside me, it’s an early start to the day) and I are off to the biggest birthday party of all time possibly. In a musical sense anyway. The iconic songwriter Willie Nelson is turning 90 years old and we’re off to Hollywood to attend the 2 day party with some of music's most elite.
About a month ago, Chandler reached out and said that he and Monica (who in recent years have done quite well for themselves) would like to take us to the concert of a lifetime, all we had to do was say yes or no and they would handle the rest. Who could say no to such an offer? Especially since we hadn’t seen each other in a while and this truly was the lineup of a lifetime. Like, The Last Waltz level good…..maybe better. I’ll tell you more about that later though….as it happens. First, we have a few flights to get through on our way from Saskatoon to California.
The last time I was in old Cali was around 1991. I went there with my dear old Grandmother and my Mother. We hit Disney and Universal Studios and all the other fun things. I was almost as music obsessed then, at age 12, as I am now. Music being the only real constant in my life. At 12 I was obsessed with The Doors and more specifically Jim Morrison. My slightly askew admiration of the drunken poet was pretty naive but I saw him as the golden idol he likely saw himself as. Not to diminish the man but as I grew older my appreciation of the doors music went over to the talented musicians behind Morrison. He was young and cocky, too bad it led to him kicking it into the 27 club. Sad. He was a great lyricist and poet in my humble opinion but nothing legendary, what made his songs legendary were the doors music and the words combined. I could write an entire novel about the doors but I will digress, it’s more to set up my love of LA itself. Hollywood, the LA Raiders (90's me loved that team, still cheering for em’ in Vegas) and the sunset strip….where bands like the doors bloomed. Guns N’ Roses too…but on this trip, 32 years later, we’re going for the country. Though I hear Robby Krieger is playing tonight somewhere in Los Angeles. 12 year old me and 44 year old me are both very excited. But it’s 7am so I’m gonna nap. Thankfully, an uneventful flight and commute to the city of Angels. We get to our hotel, meet up with the Bings and start our adventure.
Outside my window is the iconic Hollywood sign. Each letter is over 50 feet tall I'm told. The first thing that hits me is how much poop there is everywhere. You can even smell it in some side streets. Haven’t seen one single dog, Hollywood baby. After a quick freshening up we head out to explore. About a ten minute walk from our hotel lands us in a dirty industrial part of the sunset strip. Beside a mechanic shop, tucked away, is the Hollywood Forever cemetery. Maybe it’s morbid but I love hanging out in graveyards and this particular one holds one of my biggest musical influences. But first, we pop into a wee liquor store for some walking around beers. The store owner expertly gives us brown bags and lets us know “don’t worry though, the cops don’t come down here”. Hollywood baby.
Brown bag beers in hand, we head into the very large and enclosed resting place for some of this town elite. On the way in we pass Mel Blanc's grave, the voice of my childhood. Random crazy famous graves are everywhere. But I am laser focused and am in search of a hero. Johnny Ramone.
The Ramones were a pretty big part of my musical education. The simplicity of the music, the energy. The attitude. Along with a ton of other peeps, I consider this band the founding fathers of the punk rock movement of the 70’s and 80’s.
New York was where this music was born, LA is where it’s laid to rest. Coming up in a small lake, I see the silhouette of a long haired, leather jacket wearing bad ass. I have to stop myself from running. Blitzkrieg Bop is blaring in my mind.
Johnny Ramone wasn't technically a great player. The whole point of the Ramones was to just pick up an instrument and have at it. The band that started a thousand bands. There are quotes all over the stone marker, tipped off with a larger than life statue if a larger than life player. I pour out my beer n his grave and reflect. Beside Johnny is another crazy icon, Chris Cornell. This place is weird but at least the poop smell is gone. For now. I’m told Dee Dee is laid to rest here as well but in true Dee Dee fashion; I decided not to find him, to say fuck it and leave.
The rest of the evening was a bit uneventful other than seeing where the Beatles recorded some stuff, reading all the names in the stars along Hollywood Blvd and hanging with memories of legends gone by. I also found the coolest weed store ever, Pineapple Express!! Hollywood.
The next day we went to a tiny diner around the corner and spotted our first (living) celebrity. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was eating breaky down from us. I had to resist the urge to whistle the GoT theme whilst asking “whatcha having there rat….sausages?”
I’m better than that. Just barely.
We did the tram tour thing, saw all the stuff and things but I quickly tired of the masses of people doing dumb things like the homeless guy trying to bang the delivery robot. Hollywood baby….plus, I had the concert of a lifetime to get to.
We walked up to the Hollywood bowl, grabbing a couple of walking beers from a smart young entrepreneurial couple at the side of the road. We drank them on the way into the majestic Hollywood Bowl. The First thing I notice is the crazy amount of people gathered here. And braids….braids everywhere. Even in my own hair! We met an older couple of ladies from Saskatoon on the way there, ha ha….they didn't want road beers.
We get through security and have a little wander around. This is truly the coolest venue I’ve been to. It’s filled with greenery and acts as a natural amphitheatre. We find a guy selling cushions and buy four. Our tushes deserve only the finest treatment.
The venue itself is so impressive, you forget why you're there briefly…..until you smell the skunk and someone yells “Willie!!!” Then it all comes back with a giant puff of smoke. That smoke didn’t clear for two days.
The event itself started with a young phenom known as Billy Strings. He expertly dove into Willie's favourite opening song “Whiskey River”. This kid can pick, he can sing and he’s got a cool stage vibe. I’m late to the party but I see great things for him….in fact, Willie joins him on his new song “California Sober”, one of my favourite newly learned terms.
I personally didn't stay California sober for long though, the wine was pouring freely and there were high spirits everywhere. Impossible for a guy like me to not get swept up in the emotion. I’m a concert crier and I’m not gonna explain that…if you know, you know. Jess, my lovely partner, counted 5. I’m gonna attempt to guess what they were based on the evenings performances as the details of the first night are slightly foggy.
In order of most to least tears shed:
Number one has to be Neil Young and Stephen Stills reuniting on stage to perform a heavy rock version of “For What it’s Worth”, one of my favourite songs of all time and still just as relevant today.
Warren Hayes of the Allman Bros jamming out another absolute favourite of mine, “Midnight Rider”.
Roseanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson doing “Loving Her Was Easier”...the way they gazed at each other. Such tender love.
Lucas Nelson doing “Angel Flying Too Close to The Ground”...hes got the talent to carry on his fathers legacy for sure....and he might even be a slightly better singer!
Nathaniel Rateliff and Margo Price doing “City of New Orleans”...just wow.
Gary. Fucking. Clark. Jr. Holy shit.
This is of course, is just a taste of the evening performances. Every single one was amazing and it really did feel like we were all part of something special. Like, Last Waltz special.
Filling out the list of performers on Saturday night was Charley Crockett, Particle Kid (Willies Younger son Micah), Lyle Lovett, Edie Brickell, Charlie Sexton, Beck, Norah Jones, Leon Bridges, Jack Johnson, Tyler Childers, Ziggy Marley, Tom Jones, Jamie Johnson, Bob Weir, The Chicks, The Lumineers, Sturgill Simpson, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and of course, Willie Nelson.
The house band was a little bit alright as well, featuring Don Was on bass and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers on keys. It really was a who's who of the musical elite. And then throw in some top notch celebs like Ethan Hawke, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner.
Willie came on stage to a thundering of applause at the end of Neil Young's short set and played one with old Shakey. Then out came George Strait, (another country legend) and him and Willie did two, “Sing One With Willie” and my favourite Willie cover “Pancho and Lefty” which was written by the great Townes Van Zant.
After that, as if it couldn't get any better, Willie yells to the side of the stage “Come roll one up with me Snoop”. And out walks another legend. Mutha’ Fuckin’ Snoop DOGG!! Honestly, this might be the highlight of the entire weekend for me. They roll right in to “Roll me Up and Smoke Me when I die”, a true stoner anthem. Watching Snoop bop along seated next to Willie was very special. They reminded me of two old fishing buddies.
The evening closed out with some Willie standards and of course a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” sung by the entirety of the night's performers gathered around their hero, father, friend and family patriarch. Family has always been the most important thing for Willie Nelson. That and weed have made him live a long, long, happy life.
The rest of the weekend had its share of fun and the second night was just as crazy as the first night. Thou, quite a bit mellower. I supposed a super stoned Woody Harrleson as a host would do that. I'm not going to get much into the second night as I'd like to keep that for myself (go on YouTube, there are literally hundreds of videos from the concert, some really good quality). It was an amazing show(s) and I have thee most amazing friends for being so generous as to take Jess and I. Thank you Chandler and Monica, could you BE any more generous?! I will be humbled by this for the rest of my days.
There is a rumble online that this is going to be released theatrically so it really will be a Last Waltz type deal. I hope the legacy stands as tall as this will likely never happen again. The last few songs of the entire event, when Willie was struggling just a bit with old Trigger, he had a bit of help lovingly from his two sons. They gathered around the old man as he welcomed out a Rolling Stone. Keith Fucking Richards. What a great way to end an epic weekend. Of course they jammed out Billy Shavers “I'm Gonna Live Forever”. They probably will outlast us all.
The whole gang came back out on stage for the last few numbers as well. “Will the circle be unbroken” being the last song, a Carter Family Standard. What a show, truly. Concerts are now ruined for me for life. Or at least until next week... a music addiction is a music addition, as most of our readers, writers and photographers are well aware.
Most of the pics I took are horrible quality but if you want to see more, hit up my
Instagram page. Jessica DeBack (the good ones) and myself (the bad ones) took all the pictures in this article.
Happy Birthday Willie, thanks for letting me come to your party.