Willie Nelson closed his performance at Frost Amphitheater on Monday in classic raspy tone, singing “Happy birthday to… me!”
The birthday ballad was timely: Nelson turns 90 years old this Saturday. The tune was reminiscent of Nelson’s 1984 rendition of “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” with fellow country star Dolly Parton.
Although cowboy sightings may be rare in Palo Alto, a birthday wish was seemingly enough to summon Willie Nelson fans from every corner of the Bay Area. A steady stream of boot clicks guided me into the amphitheater. I felt a rare sense of “American spirit” settle over Stanford University as concertgoers filed into the venue.
I first found the merchandise tent, which boasted every piece of Nelson paraphernalia imaginable, including his face screen-printed onto bandanas and plaques endorsing “Willie Nelson for President 2024.” As a woman purchased a tee shirt, another concertgoer tapped her shoulder. “Keep in mind that anything that says ‘Reserve’ is Willie promoting his cannabis line,” she said.
Both an emblem of Americana and a countercultural force, Nelson released “Willie’s Reserve” in 2015 on the heels of marijuana legalization in some US states. The Abbott, Texas-born singer’s progressive politics are a departure from country conventions, and his vocal stance on decriminalizing marijuana is just one example. While many of his conservative fans have called for Nelson to keep music separate from politics, he refuses to do so.
Accordingly, Nelson’s audience at Frost comprised a varied demographic: tech employees in “Lonesome Cowboy” tee shirts, old men sporting the American flag on suede jackets and giggling toddlers in flared denim.
Willie Nelson has produced upwards of 100 albums in his career, with five albums released in the last five years alone. Shirts in the crowd named Nelson the “last of the breed.” Coming up on his 90th birthday, Nelson approached themes of mortality with humor and levity. As opposed to hanging up his cowboy hat in old age, he performed “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” with all the animation he has come to be adored for.
Nelson kicked off the night with his classic hit “Whiskey River.” He maintained rhythm, transitioning between songs swiftly like a float down the whiskey river his lyrics describe. When Nelson’s aging voice faltered, the crowd filled the amphitheater with song. He was accompanied by his son, Micah Nelson, who plays under the moniker Particle Kid. The stage name came from his father’s stoned attempt to call Micah “prodigal son” when he was 14.
Particle Kid’s voice has an experimental, indie quality. The two sang “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven),” a song they dreamt up during a game of dominoes in 2020. Micah Nelson wrote the song as a love letter to his father through poetic, sentimental lines nodding to his eternal wild spirit. Nelson sang of his father, “they say people my age are expected to fade, well I’m afraid I’ve let them down.” In concert, their collaboration told a touching story of generations.
Openers Tyler Booth and Shane Smith and the Saints impressed with short, striking sets of their own. Booth’s smooth baritone paved the way for Smith, whose upbeat country has been featured in the popular show “Yellowstone” featuring Kevin Costner. Smith and Booth successfully primed the crowd for Nelson with a country sound.
As fanatics of the genre flocked to the lawns of Frost to celebrate Willie Nelson’s early birthday, they helped cement yet another year of melodies and marijuana for the country legend, bringing a rarified cowboy air back to the Farm.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.