It’s a near-freezing Friday night in Austin, yet there’s an unusually long line of people extending around the corner waiting to get into Antone’s nightclub. The wait is for rising prodigy Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real. The band is still flying under the radar of most, but not for long. Nelson is the 22-year-old son of country legend Willie Nelson, so his pedigree will always have cache in these parts. But Lukas Nelson is clearly out to carve his own niche.
The band’s self-titled debut LP, released in December, does just that. It’s a stellar blend of classic rock influences like Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Yet it’s also infused with a forward thinking vibe that blends a devoted rock ‘n’ roll sound with a deeply spiritual viewpoint, and just a touch of that classic Nelson twang. If you rip the album into iTunes, the genre comes up as “Religious”. This is clearly accurate if your religion is rock ‘n’ roll.
It turns out that Antone’s will only be half-filled and that the line was really due to an earlier show that had to be cleared out first. But this reporter dares to venture that 2011 will be the last time music fans will have a chance to see Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real in a half-filled club for the bargain price of 10 American dollars. Music legend Kris Kristofferson was sighted in the VIP section, and after the show it was reported that he commented on how it felt like watching the Beatles back in the day, implying a supreme talent destined for big things. It really isn’t a shocking quote considering the stellar set that had just been witnessed.
Rewind 90 minutes to the band’s set opener, “Four Letter Word”. It’s an upbeat rocker with a bluesy vibe where Nelson and his compadres immediately display a chemistry indicating a real band, not some celebrity kid and some hired guns. Drummer Anthony LoGerfo and bassist Cory McCormick are locked in all night, while percussionist Tato Melgar adds superb polyrhythmic percussion throughout. Nelson looks like a classic cosmic cowboy who could just as easily be 32 as 22, clearly an old soul.
The vibe is pushed higher with a compelling rock ‘n roll arrangement of “Peaceful Solution”, a song written by Lukas’ dad and sister Amy in 2007, featuring some of the timeliest lyrics of the 21st century, “There is 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”. Lukas rips off a smoking solo on his Stratocaster to power the push for peace in this troubled world. It’s rare to find a charismatic frontman who is also an ace lead guitarist these days, and Nelson is most definitely both.
“Toppers” features a deeply bluesy sound on a tale about a stripper with a heart of gold, with Nelson ripping another searing solo, followed by a great bass solo and a jam with some Band of Gypsys vibe. “Sound of Your Memory” brings things down with a shimmery and heartfelt ballad about love lost, where Nelson demonstrates a softer side.
It’s just a brief interlude in tonight’s rock show though, as the band kicks it back into high gear with their mash-up of Jimi Hendrix’s “Pali Gap/Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”. To play the latter is to tread on sacred ground, for it’s one of the deepest, most spiritual cuts in the Hendrix catalogue. But it’s here that Nelson demonstrates he is clearly what Carlos Santana would call a “multi-dimensional warrior”. And after having heard his take on “Peaceful Solution”, it’s obvious this song fits Lukas Nelson like the proverbial glove. The band unites on an electrifying jam that has the audience enraptured in rock bliss.
They take it back down a notch with the gorgeous “Don’t Lose Your Mind”, a surprisingly soul-soothing song from an artist of Nelson’s mere 22-years on the planet. The depth of the lyrics and spiritual delivery hit the heart in a way that is all too rare in the modern music scene. The lyrics hint at Nelson’s humble mindset, another rare quality amongst children of celebrities, made apparent throughout the evening. Nelson never once refers to himself, merely introducing the band on a couple of occasions by saying, “We are the Promise of the Real”.
One may wonder what Nelson means by “the Real”. A poem from the inside of the CD cover reveals his intent, “To be real is to realize humanity as a whole, embrace imperfection, and dance between the invasive fingertips of accepted normality”. It’s no wonder Nelson is connecting so deeply with the audience tonight, since Austin is a town that’s never been big on accepted normality.
“Does anyone like Neil Young?” asks Nelson. “We do too”, he says in response to the immediate applause before kicking into Young’s “L.A.”, an ode to the City of Angels (where Nelson now resides). It’s a crowd-pleasing rocker, and it seems the band can do no wrong. “The Truth” has a melodic rocking vibe too, but it’s hard to trace to any particular influence. It’s a tune where the band develops their own sound, though Nelson’s vocal delivery somewhat recalling his father’s, but in a rock context that evolves into a smoking jam with a progression that conjures a bit of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. Here percussionist Melgar stars once again, going far beyond the studio version of the song.
The band has just played the first eight tracks from their debut album in succession and it’s been nothing but magic. It’s easy to see this will stand as one of the best shows of the year (even though it’s only February). A Bob Dylan mash-up seems to blend “Buckets of Rain” into “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, much to the delight of the audience as the show just keeps growing more memorable. Another most fitting selection is blues classic “Hoochie Koochie Man”. When Nelson sings of how a gypsy woman told his mother before he was born that her child was going to be a son of a gun, you don’t doubt it’s a true story. The band kicks the jam into overdrive, where Nelson pulls out all the stops, playing the guitar upside down, then with his teeth, ala Hendrix, as if possessed by the music. It’s a smashing conclusion to a stupendous set.
The band satisfies the crowd with two more tunes in the encore, closing with a hot jam featuring a bluesy “Dear Mr. Fantasy” tease then a workout on the Hendrix groove, “Third Stone from the Sun”. It’s all grins afterward, with a mass realization that the Promise of the Real is the real deal. If rock ‘n’ roll’s spiritual power can truly save the planet, it is messengers like Lukas Nelson will lead the way.