Things looked and sounded a little strange at the start of Willie Nelson's concert Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. It was, indeed, the grizzled Nelson up there, holding his trusty, battered guitar, Trigger, singing "Crazy" and "Healing Hands of Time." But it was also Nelson in front of the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by David Campbell. Most curious, it was Nelson sounding uncharacteristically detached, almost sleepwalking through a set that also included "Falling in Love Again" and "I'll Be Seeing You."
Nelson has recorded and performed many times with orchestral backing. And his interpretations of standards are typically fascinating for the way in which he transforms the music and the lyrics. But here, he seemed simply to be marking time.
Fortunately, that part of the program lasted only about 25 minutes. After intermission, accompanied by his full family of players, the real Willie Nelson show began. Far more involved in the music in every way, he sang and played with authority, happily involving each member of his group -- which included his sons, guitarist Lukas and drummer Micah, and his sister, keyboardist Bobbie Lee.
Any Nelson program -- especially in a venue the size of the Bowl -- is going to become a showcase of his hits. There are plenty to choose from, and each was a study in the combination of expressiveness, nostalgia and Americana that is essential to his style: "On the Road Again," "Always on My Mind," "Mammas Don't Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," among others.
But he revealed the broader reach of his talents in a lovely instrumental version of Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," more standards -- "Blue Skies," "All of Me," "Georgia on My Mind" -- and a few new tunes, including "Back to Earth," from his upcoming album, "Songbird."
Despite the somewhat unsettling beginning, it was a classic Willie Nelson experience, his musical powers perhaps best illustrated when he sang "As sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines" (from "Georgia on My Mind"), and the moon rose, as if on cue, over the mantle of trees bordering the Bowl.