Mourning the Hollywood Bowl: 24 artists on what the Bowl means to L.A., and to them
For the first time in nearly a century, the Hollywood Bowl will be silent this summer. Which means no strolls up Highland with picnic baskets, no stacked parking, no encounters with puppeteer Dave Liebe Hart, no magic-hour mingling or shared sushi in terrace boxes. Music fans who would otherwise be flying in from around the world are staying home.
Most pointedly, no musicians will stand on one of the most hallowed stages in the world and feel the sense of accomplishment and rush of energy that comes with a Bowl appearance. After all, that same platform has supported artists including Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Thelonious Monk, Judy Garland, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. On one single evening in 1961, Johnny Cash, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, June Carter Cash, Flatt and Scruggs and Patsy Cline did back-to-back sets.
As the decades have passed, the Bowl’s lineup has reflected the musical times. Whether with jazz, rock, soul, folk, R&B, funk or, of course, classical music, a booking at the Bowl remains a career marker for the artists lucky enough to have performed there. The Times asked entertainers from across disciplines to reflect on their most memorable performances at the Hollywood Bowl.
Lindsey Buckingham, guitarist, formerly of Fleetwood Mac
The Hollywood Bowl is one of the great iconic spots of Los Angeles. Its outdoor setting celebrating the Southern California climate, its proximity to downtown Hollywood, its rustic/urban atmosphere, and its history dating back to the early 1920s, all resonate with the spirit of the city. My favorite experience at the Bowl was in 2013, when Fleetwood Mac played there. At that time we’d been together for nearly 40 years, and the passage of time had finally allowed us the clarity to see that we’d done our job properly and had perhaps become a bit iconic ourselves. With that awareness, playing the Hollywood Bowl — such a great part of the legacy of the city we love — made for a magical night.
Nile Rodgers, producer and Chic bandleader
July 4th last year playing with the L.A. Phil was maybe one of my greatest experiences ever. We had never played three nights in a row there, and by the time we got to the 4th, it was complete pandemonium, in such a wonderful way. I went to elementary school and junior high in L.A., and we’d go hang out on the hill above the Bowl. It’s an awesome sight from the stage. I’m used to it now but if you’re not accustomed to that, seeing it for the first time, the crowd feels like it’s a wave that’s going to break over you.
Kathy Valentine, Go-Go’s
In the summer of 2018, the Go-Go’s were featured as the annual July 4th Fireworks Spectacular musical guest. This meant three consecutive nights performing at the Bowl, with the L.A. Philharmonic accompanying us on many songs. Our band had played at the Bowl several times over the years, but this was an exceptional honor. So much tradition, prestige, history — For a band that got its start as punk rockers from the streets of Hollywood, I know we all felt both humbled and proud. The funniest part for me was the dichotomy of looking out and seeing close to 20,000 people, dancing, going nuts, cheering and singing all the words — then looking back and wondering if the violinists were just hating this gig, wishing they were playing Sibelius or Beethoven instead of “We Got the Beat.”
Rodrigo Sánchez, Rodrigo & Gabriela
The last time we played was two years ago. We’d been working on a new album for three years, and it was such a long process for us. Our management and the labels were there that night and we decided to play a long cover of Pink Floyd‘s “Echoes.” We weren’t actually sure we were going to do that at the Bowl after playing with the orchestra [during the first half of the set]. But we wanted to put this song on the record and the only way to convince the label, and especially management, was to test it there right on the spot.
We didn’t have chairs, so we sat on the little steps and started playing “Echoes” — 20 minutes long. It was an incredible response. When management came back after they said, “Okay, that has to be on the record.” And “Echoes” became the first single on that album, which eventually got the Grammy. Everything is connected to it.
Lionel Richie, singer-songwriter
In 1971, the Commodores were the opening act for the Jackson 5. That particular day will ring in my head forever because we just finished doing a show in San Francisco at the Cow Palace, and it was an amazing success. The next night was the Hollywood Bowl. We’d been waiting to play the Hollywood Bowl because this was our great opportunity to maybe, just maybe, be discovered by someone like the Motown family.
The thing that we didn’t realize was when they packed up the show [in San Francisco], they left our equipment on the side of the backstage area, so when we came to rehearsal to do our soundcheck, we had no equipment. We had to borrow the amplifier from the Jackson 5. We had to borrow the guitar.
But more than anything I remember that the tops to our uniforms made it, but the bottoms didn’t. So we played the show in the tops — the kind that snap underneath so they stay tucked in your pants. And bare feet. So an afro, bare feet and a top.
We played our set, and members of the Gordy family saw us there. They wanted to sign the Commodores. Let me tell you something: The only reason I’m here today is that I actually had enough guts to go out on stage armed with an afro and a top.
Margo Price, singer-songwriter
It’s absolutely surreal, standing on that stage where Dylan and the Jimi Hendrix Experience played. I was a part of the Outlaw Music Festival that Willie Nelson put on, and that was one of the stops. It was a killer lineup: Willie, Sturgill Simpson, Phil Lesh, Lukas Nelson, Particle Kid and myself.
I was actually expecting, but I had not told anyone that I was pregnant yet during that show. I was having morning sickness down in my dressing room. I was supposed to go up and sing with Lukas and I was throwing up. I missed my queue. He called me to come out there and I didn’t make it. I felt really bad.
As Phil Lesh took the stage, my booking agent asked me if maybe I would want to sit in with Phil. They let me look at the setlist and I was like, “All right, I’m singing ‘Turn on Your Love Light.’ I went up there and sang with him and really had a blast. I’m pregnant. I’m hiding it from everyone. I mean, I had butterflies anyway, but it was really memorable. I got up there and sang gospel songs with Willie afterward, and me and Phil walked out arm-in-arm to back up Willie. It was something incredible to be a part of.
Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes
(On backing up Kris Kristofferson during a tribute to Glen Campbell)
Just being around Kris Kristofferson was so great, but he hadn’t played with a band in a long time so keeping up and playing guitar along to a drummer was kind of a foreign for him. He was worried about missing his cue, so during soundcheck I sang for him when to come in, but I didn’t know if he was going to want me to do that for the actual show itself.
After, I decided to go find his dressing room and ask him. I thought, “I’ll take this opportunity to let him know that he’s one of my all-time heroes.” He comes out and I said, “Kris, do you want me to sing along to that one section?” Kris very sweetly said, “Taylor, I’ll take all the help I can get.”
I said, “Well, I also wanted to tell you —” and he’s like, ‘Hold on. Your fly’s down.” I looked down, and sure enough my fly is down. I’m trying to tell my hero how I feel about him. He [said], “I would hope you would say the same thing to me. Now what was it you wanted to say?” At that point I was so embarrassed that I was like, “Oh it’s all good, I’m a big fan and it’s a pleasure to play with you.” I got out of there as fast as I could.
Verdine White, Earth, Wind & Fire
The one I loved was the one we most recently did, in September 2019, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Thomas Wilkins conducting and two sold-out nights there. The first time in 2013, Maurice [White]came to that particular concert and got on stage with us. It was in September and it was fantastic.
Danny Elfman, composer
When I was first approached to do “The Nightmare Before Christmas” live at the Bowl I rejected the idea outright. “It’s just too big and it’s outdoors,” I thought, two strikes against any feeling of intimacy. Though skeptical I finally agreed. After the first performance, however, I was completely converted. There is some kind of weird effect up there that is quite unique and magical. Although it’s very large it doesn’t feel that way. I was shocked how intimate the experience actually felt. Needless to say I loved it and I very much look forward to returning.
Courtney Love, singer-songwriter
When I opened for Jane’s Addiction at the Hollywood Bowl in 2001, it had ended badly. I’d been blasé about the (very serious, very early) curfew, and ended up being dragged off by two goons. Dramatic. Upon returning to the Bowl with Lana Del Rey in 2015, I wasn’t headlining, so “redemption” wasn’t what I was seeking. Just a good show. But as a Californian, an Angeleno, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of occasion when walking up the slope to the stage. I sang Leonard Cohen’s deceptive simple “Take This Longing” and gave myself to the moment, to all the Lana fans in flower crowns, beautifully lit, with the May Jasmine breeze… you know, the reasons we live here. LDR took headlining the Bowl very seriously. Afterward, her eyes were just alive. It had been a real triumph for her.
After the show, I got out past the parking and buses, took a shortcut down to Hollywood Blvd. and started walking back to the Chateau Marmont. I usually love my post-show solitudes, but on this night I didn’t. I still drank then and had a bottle of something in my cotton coat. I felt like the biggest cliche in the history of this town. But then a town car pulled up next to me. A man I’ve always loved and didn’t know was in town rolled down the window. “Hey toots,” he said. “That was a great Leonard Cohen cover. Wanna ride?” I smiled wide. It was that sort of evening.
Misty Copeland, ballet dancer
Growing up in Southern California, the Hollywood Bowl was always just a fantasy, like, one day I could ever perform there. When I got the opportunity to perform, I was partnered by Marcelo Gomes and we did a Tchaikovsky theme. The love that I felt from the audience — I remember I walked out onto the stage to do my variation, the white swan from Swan Lake, and I couldn’t hear the music when it started because the cheers were so loud. Being a California girl, it was such a proud moment. I kept saying that evening I wish I would have been in the audience watching.
Alan Menken, composer
The first time I played the Hollywood Bowl, I went on before the sun set. People were still arriving in their boxes, talking, setting up picnics, rolling wine bottles down the steps. It was like playing the world’s largest and noisiest dinner theatre. The next time I performed there I was the encore late into the darkness of the evening... a much more magical experience.
Richard Kraft, concert director/producer
I stumbled into doing extravagant shows like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Willy Wonka” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “La La Land” at the Hollywood Bowl without letting anyone know I had zero prior experience even directing community theatre. I kept waiting for the showbiz police to show up and cart me away. Instead, the Bowl became a second home. I really felt like I belonged when the security guard at the Artists’ Entrance stopped asking to see my backstage laminate. For the audiences and those putting on the shows, the Hollywood Bowl is both massive and intimate, communal and personal.
Laura Engel, producer
Producing live-to-film concerts experiences like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is magical. It transforms the place into a giant outdoor movie theatre crossbred with an enormous concert venue. The box seats feel like a family picnic and elsewhere like a tailgate party for thousands. However, they have an absolute curfew time policy at the Bowl for the end of the show. I remember always having anxiety attacks during the encores frantically checking my watch on the side of the stage. With that said, the Bowl shows are some of the most magical nights of my life.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, actor
I was honored to be a part of the “Sondheim on Sondheim” concert a few years ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As a musical theater nerd it has always been a dream to sing one of Sondheim’s most notoriously tricky songs, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” and to perform it at the Bowl with Gustavo Dudamel conducting was beyond my wildest imagination. I drilled the lyrics to that song every day for a month to get ready. On the afternoon of the final dress rehearsal, I messed up the lyrics badly. Relieved that it happened in rehearsal but terrified that it would happen again that night in front of 18,000 people, I spent that next six hours maniacally going over the lyrics. I ended up writing some of them on my palm right before going out on stage. I looked to Dudamel, who gave me a nod of confidence before we all launched into the song. I never looked down at the prompts I had written on my hand. Thank god I didn’t need them because I had sweated them off anyhow!
Yuja Wang, pianist
I made two debuts with two maestros, Gustavo [Dudamel] and Esa-Pekka [Salonen]. It’s as close to a rock concert a classical venue can get. I love the energy, with 18,000 people. And it’s an artistic landmark that I look forward to returning to each year. It’s like a West Coast Carnegie Hall for me.
Inara George, the Bird and the Bee
Playing Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl are totally bucket-list things to me. But where Carnegie Hall is an insane sonic experience, the Bowl is more of a spatial experience. To be onstage there, it feels like an intimate space, which is so rare in such a large venue. And the same is true in the audience. If you go to a show at the Staples Center and you know that 200 of your friends are there, there’s no way you’re going to see them. But when you go the Bowl and you walk the pathway between the boxes and the upper area, you’ll run into 10 people you know. It feels so communal.
Gaten Matazzaro, actor
I remember what it felt like to walk on that stage for opening night of “Into the Woods.” The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, so I could see everyone in the entire venue and this immediate fear overtook me. Then I looked quickly to my right, trying my best to stay in character, and I noticed for the first time how insane it was that I was getting to experience something of this magnitude with this group of people I had grown to love so much over the course of just three weeks. To see that nobody is going to feel that same magic this year breaks my heart.
Harry Connick Jr., singer and actor
Some of my best memories of performing are from the Hollywood Bowl. Looking at the audience, from the smiling faces in the boxes all the way up to the twinkling flashes of lights in the uppermost rows, I take great pride in having performed on that hallowed stage many times. I look forward to getting back there soon!
Michael McDonald, Doobie Brothers
First time I ever drove by the place after moving to L.A., I could feel its cultural importance. And when I drive by now, I immediately go right back to the first time I played there with the Doobies — a reunion show [in 1987] for the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation. But my favorite gigs I’ve done there were with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra [most recently in 2018]. In so many cases, it’s a difficult situation to play these pops programs because the orchestra has to hear the band from behind. And I don’t care who you are — no band sounds great from behind. It’s just kind of a horrid, rolling mush. But how that stage is set up, with the orchestra like 10 feet above the band, it makes so much sonic sense. You’re getting the ambiance of an enclosure, but an enclosure that’s open to infinity.
Johnny Mathis, singer
You know what it feels like to play the Hollywood Bowl? Absolutely top of the world. Nothing beats it for atmosphere, for old history. I could never believe how comfortable it was, because the stage is relatively small and because of the proximity from the stage to the first seats. It’s very cozy — not vast at all. I have a lot of friends in the business who have performed there over the years. I always wait till everybody is inside and then sneak in. Fortunately, the people there remember me, so they let me park in the back.
Pete Tong, DJ and radio presenter
Playing at the Hollywood Bowl in November of 2017 with my Ibiza Classics show is undoubtedly a career highlight, and writing this now, something that I can’t quite believe actually happened. But it did, I have the poster on my wall. I remember being backstage and praying for time to slow down so I could savor the history seeping through the walls. Given the scale and worldwide reputation of the venue, behind the scenes it’s much smaller and simpler than you can imagine, but that just adds to the history and the vibe. The Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, Prince, Monty Python — the legacy is insane, we never wanted our performance to end.
Dean Spunt, No Age
When our band got offered to open the Bowl show with Sonic Youth and Pavement it was a real glorious feeling. Coming from playing to 50 people at galleries to playing on the stage that my mother saw Earth, Wind & Fire as a young girl felt like a pretty big moment. My parents made a bootleg shirt of the show and my father actually sold them out front of the Bowl after our set.
Randy Newman, singer-songwriter
My favorite gig was my last one in 2018. I usually play by myself, but then I had an orchestra and a great band. It was like sitting in a comfortable chair. The orchestra was conducted by my cousin David Newman, and I got such a kick out of watching him. When you have a show that goes well at home, it’s quite a kick. The Bowl is one of the most famous locales in the city. A place like that draws people here. I have season tickets and go every year for the orchestra. They’re doing the right thing obviously, but it reminds you how long performing live is going to be out. It’ll be so good to get back.