Just before country legend Willie Nelson emerged at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night, people passed around a note: “When he comes out, sing Happy Birthday to Willie — Pass it on.” The high school gimmick was surprisingly successful as the middle-aged crowd stood and belted “Happy Birthday” to the 84-year-old. Though he played the night before at Stagecoach, Nelson’s voice was the opposite of tired. He might have been the oldest person at the show.
Nelson began his set with the smooth sounds of “Whiskey River,” making the warm April night feel more like July. He played a swath of favorites — including “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again” — and just before 9 p.m., he tore off his red bandana, threw it to the crowd, and sang “Georgia on My Mind.” Many were already wearing bandanas and flannels and cowboy hats. Nearly everyone appeared to be lifelong fans, one of them telling those waiting in line for the restroom, “You are in for quite the treat!”
Each song flowed into the next, and Nelson gave little commentary. He did insert “Happy Birthday to me!” into his riff, to the delight of the crowd that reportedly included Jessica Simpson. At the tail end of the show, Nelson was joined onstage by rising country star Maren Morris, who opened for him. Though he didn’t play an encore, the audience did not seem bummed. He’s 84, after all.