Guitarist Lukas Nelson calls his band the Promise of the Real (P.O.T.R.) and the name is fitting because the group is legit. There’s a general tendency to be somewhat skeptical of children of celebrities who choose to follow in their parents footsteps. But Nelson, son of country music legend Willie Nelson, is well on his way to carving out his own niche as one of the more gifted rock ‘n’ rollers of his generation.
The band’s first two albums established Lukas as a talented songwriter and the band as a sonic force, combining various classic rock influences with a little bit of cosmic cowboy country twang. Nelson is an ace guitarist and the band is a powerful live act, which is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. Nelson has also been racking up extra credit points by collaborating with various musical elders, such as sitting in with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and company at the Los Angeles Greek Theater on Furthur’s fall 2012 tour. This followed a tour opening for John Fogerty.
The Promise of the Real will soon be releasing their third album and it appears to represent a certain sense of growth for Nelson into his own spiritual relationship with music, a contrast with the band’s Wasted LP from 2012. “This record is a lot more positive and reflective than the last. ‘Wasted’ was a snapshot of this darker place I was in. This new album is me having emerged from that place and finding balance again in my life and really connecting with my band,” explained Nelson in a recent press release.
This vibe was evident from the beginning of the band’s show at the Belly Up Tavern on the first Saturday in February. “Don’t forget to get lost in it,” said Nelson of the music as the band launched into a series of new tunes to kick off what would become a huge two-and-a-half-hour show. “Little Girl of the World” impressed with a reggae rock sound that seemed to mix a little bit of Bob Marley with more of a John Lennon style vocal. The ability to blend classic influences into new sonic flavors is one of Nelson’s strongest attributes and was evident throughout the night.
Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” has been a staple of the band’s live show for several years now and was a highlight again here. It’s the type of tune that alerts casual fans that they are in fact attending a serious rock show. Bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar gelled here to provide a stellar groove for Nelson to solo over. But it’s the whole package of guitar skills, passionate vocals and memorable songwriting that reveals Nelson as an old soul who was born to rock ‘n’ roll.
A cover of Neil Young’s “Homegrown” was another winner, with the band’s sound and vibe well-geared for the rootsy tune about a love for cannabis. The band did a masterful job of mixing in timely covers throughout the night. One jam featured a tease of Hendrix’s anti-war classic “Machine Gun” segueing into a full jam on Pink Floyd’s “Money”, before returning to the “Machine Gun” riff again at the end. It was a superb thematic statement on the capitalist greed that fuels the economy of this war-torn world. A rocking revision of Willie Nelson’s “Peaceful Solution” would later continue on this theme—“There’s a peaceful solution/ It’s called a peace revolution/ Now let’s take back America/ There’s a war and we’re in it, but I know we can win it”.
It’s this type of message that makes Lukas Nelson one of rock’s great modern hopes for salvaging the promise the genre offered in the 1960s. The promise of a genre that was viewed by many as an artistic force that could help change the world, via songs that could help to change the way people think about the world around them. A Saturday night rock concert should also be about a good party though and Nelson is adept there as well. The title track from Wasted cranked up the amps and had the hard-drinking crowd of a widely diverse age range rocking out for a good time.
When the set passed midnight, the band acknowledged the time with a take on J.J. Cale’s classic “After Midnight”, although with a melodic curveball that seemed like more of a musical riff on Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Phantasy”. The classic rock mashups continued at the end of the show with a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” that moved into an instrumental jam on “Amazing Grace” and then into a rousing version of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman”. Nelson’s ability to channel Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison with equal skill has him poised as one of rock’s greatest chameleons. But at only 25-years-old, he’s just getting started, which sets up the new album as one of 2014’s most potentially significant releases.
The band closed the lengthy show with “The Joint”, a bluesy and reflective tune where Nelson sings of a cathartic release gained from his favorite smoke. The song has an almost hymn like quality, making for a great closer. Nelson is clearly someone who sees rock as akin to religion, or close to it. The socio-cultural musical revolution of the 1960s offered a sense of spiritual salvation in the music, and that message is alive and well with the Promise of the Real.