Willie Nelson & The Family perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl on April 24, 2024 | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

Just a few days shy of his 91st birthday, Willie Nelson was in fine form at the Santa Barbara Bowl on April 24, showing off why he’s been one of America’s foremost musical icons for close to a century. From the moment he dramatically put his red, white and blue guitar strap around his neck and a giant American flag came down as a backdrop, during his entire seated performance, Willie made all of us smile and stand at attention, at least metaphorically.

Backed by his longtime touring and recording band The Family, the set list of familiar favorites included a mix of covers — “Whiskey River” (apparently his traditional opening song), “Stay a Little Longer,” “Always on my Mind,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Move it on Over,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make it Thru the Night,” “Fast Train to Georgia,” “Georgia On My Mind,” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” — and Willie’s own compositions — “Write Your Own Songs,” “Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” “I Never Cared for You,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Be Cowboys,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “On the Road Again” among others.

Willie Nelson, his band The Family, and some of his actual family sing at the Santa Barbara Bowl on April 24, 2024 | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

To the enthusiastic singalong crowd’s ears, whatever youthful vigor he once played with was more than made up for by his unfiltered tenacity, pure talent, and heartfelt vocals. And it’s hard not to be charmed by a 90-year-old singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me” — especially when you know that Willie, a famous fan of reefer who started the cannabis company Willie’s Reserve in 2015, really means it! 

Prior to the show, I don’t think I realized quite how impressive his song catalog is. Though this was my first time seeing Willie Nelson live, memories of hearing his music sung at backyard gatherings and on camping trips came flooding back. I’ve been listening to songs like “On the Road Again,” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Be Cowboys” — not to mention the Willie-penned classic “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline — for what feels like my whole life .
When he brought his family (including an adorable granddaughter) up onstage for the last few songs, including  “Will the Circle Be Unbroken / I’ll Fly Away,” it was a suitable ending to his solid but somewhat short set. (I believe he played the contracted 75 minute show to the minute.)

But as writer Turk Pipkin aptly said about Nelson, “he united the hippies and the rednecks” — and he united the Santa Barbarans too. It felt like we were all family at the Bowl that night, just singing around the campfire together to our favorite Willie Nelson tunes.

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