It’s one of those extra special Fridays at the Fillmore in San Francisco because one of the music world’s rising stars is making his long-awaited headlining debut at the fabled venue. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (POTR) have been building momentum slowly but surely, reaching this career milestone only after a 10-year climb. But the future is now as the band rolls into town for a two-night stand, selling out both shows even though Nelson’s pal Bob Weir is playing Shoreline Amphitheater with Dead & Company on the same nights about 45 minutes south.
Nelson sat in with Weir and Phil Lesh when their band Furthur played the LA Greek Theater in 2012, and it was clear that Willie Nelson’s first-born son had some serious mojo working. The 30-year-old rocker’s star would almost surely have risen faster if he’d come of musical age in the 1990s or early aughts when hit videos could spur album sales that propelled young bands to stardom over just one or two album cycles. But serious musicians have to do it the old-fashioned way these days, which is to say with relentless touring to build buzz by word of mouth.
That probably suits Nelson just fine because he’s proven himself a stellar performer who thrives in the live setting, as almost all great songwriters do. But he’s also put together a real band with genuine chemistry in POTR, so much so that they’ve been serving as Neil Young’s backing band since 2015 (including the previous weekend at the Bottlerock Festival in Napa). Lukas and drummer Anthony Logerfo even first met at a Neil Young show in LA in 2008, adding a sense of rock ‘n’ roll destiny to POTR’s role backing the rock legend. This feather in the cap has only enhanced Lukas Nelson’s portfolio as he’s continued touring as part of his dad’s band, as well as relentlessly with POTR to the point where he’s become one of the hardest working performers in show business.
It’s all paying off tonight and anticipation runs high as the audience awaits a peak performance. The evening kicks off with a classic Fillmore tradition though, which is to have a talented opening artist warm up the stage for the headliner. In this case, it’s Lukas Nelson’s younger brother Micah, aka the Particle Kid. Micah and his power trio deliver a full 60-minute set, veering between spacey psychedelia and hard rockers with some compelling grunge flavor while an astronaut character comes and goes throughout the set to add a performance art vibe. “This is our favorite place to play in the whole world I think,” Micah says in homage to what some musicians have indeed dubbed “the greatest venue in the known universe”.
Micah and his band tap the Fillmore’s timeless circuit of multi-dimensional magic in a big way down the stretch with the trippy “Stroboscopic Light”, the lead single from their impending new album Window Rock (due 26 July), as he sings of using people power for transformation. Micah has described the song as “an abstract portrait of an extraterrestrial detective sent to Earth to investigate and document what the hell happened, but who discovers only madness, the fracturing of reality, and a planet in moral crisis, where the lines between good and evil have become blurred and undefined.”
It feels like a classic Fillmore jam that could have played just as well in 1969 as 2019, and there’s no doubt now that the Particle Kid has earned this opening slot just like his older brother has earned the headliner position. Micah welcomes POTR percussionist Tato Melgar for the last song, dedicating the defiant “Everything Is Bullshit” to Melgar (who hails from Uruguay) and “all the people being deported and families being separated”. The band delivers a smashing jam to cap the set with an electrifying flourish, serving notice to the Trump regime’s heartless assault on the American republic and offering inspiration to all those who aim to rise up and come together to stop the madness that has drawn concerned attention from Earth’s hipper ET visitors.
It’s less than 30 minutes later when Lukas Nelson & POTR take the stage and get their own cosmic vibes going with their great new tune, “Entirely Different Stars”. Here Lukas sings about having an alien tour guide to another world while dreaming of a home planet that was healthy and pristine rather than one ruled by greed and fear. “Goodbye world of war, hello white stars,” he sings in the bridge before a bluesy guitar solo over a simmering groove. From there the band dips back into some of their most tried and true material, as “Four Letter Word” gets the Fillmore’s dance floor moving with its blend of bluesy rock and western swing.
Lukas comments about how special it is to be back at the Fillmore, noting that the band played one of their first shows here opening for Willie in 2009. It’s a few songs into the set when Lukas lights a fuse on one of the band’s signature songs, “Something Real”. The band is rocking out good when Lukas hits the hyperdrive with a smoldering solo that he caps off by playing with his teeth in the Jimi Hendrix style. Witnessing this level of gunslinging six-string bravado sends a genuine spark through the audience that keeps everyone lit for the rest of the show as Promise of the Real delivers a slew of sonic treats.
The title track from the band’s impending new album Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) — due out June 14 — is a heartfelt winner with Lukas singing a melodic anthem for peace and harmony. “We wanted these songs to be fun and upbeat…. but we also wanted to have something to say. Rock & roll began as a countercultural movement, so in the true spirit of rock & roll, we’re trying to encourage a lifestyle where people can be active in their local communities, rather than glued to a device,” Nelson says at his website. “I wouldn’t call it a protest record. I’d call it a statement about how you can live your life with your heart leading the way.”
It’s a message befitting of the Fillmore’s sacred origins as ground zero for the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture, and it’s a clear crowd-pleaser here. Micah Nelson joins POTR on guitar for much of the set — “an honorary member of Promise of the Real” as Lukas says — including on a scintillating rendition of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic “Carry On” where Lukas plays like a man possessed. Bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony Logerfo and percussionist Melgar deliver a huge groove here, with multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz on keys while Lukas blazes on six-string. It’s one of those magic moments where the band on stage tonight connects with the Fillmore’s classic rock history for their own moment of timeless transcendence.
But what really carries the set is the great new material, such as the new album’s lead single “Bad Case”. An upbeat melodic rocker apparently inspired by the Traveling Wilburys (with a video co-directed by Tom Petty’s daughter Adria Petty), the tune shimmers here with a rocking jam featuring some Eastern sounding licks at the end that feel inspired by George Harrison. “Save a Little Heartache” is another groovy new rocker where Lukas wonders about why he can’t get things right the first time, a sentiment that clearly resonates out on the dance floor as couples embrace while strangers dance with strangers because the groove feels so good. Melgar is the band’s secret weapon time and again, adding dynamic percussive accents to boost the grooves while conjuring a cosmic cowboy vibe that suits Lukas Nelson so well.
Then there’s “Where Does Love Go”, a mid-tempo tune that feels like it has some more of that cathartic Wilbury-esque vibe, while artfully nicking a bit of vocal melody from the Skyliners’ doo-wop classic “Since I Don’t Have You”. When the set steams to a rocking conclusion, it’s almost hard to believe it wasn’t quite two hours long since POTR has been known to deliver two and a half hour shows. Lukas seems to recognize this when he says something about how the band has to pace themselves for another night, and those lengthier shows indeed tend to come on one-night stands. POTR cranks up the classic rock power again on the encore though, rocking out on Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” for a big finish.
In most cases, coming back for the second show on Saturday night would be a no-brainer after this inspiring performance that has fans feeling fine as they exit out onto the corner of Geary & Fillmore with their free limited edition show posters. But alas, some are compelled to catch hometown heroes Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann down at Shoreline the next night. The Bay Area will be lucky if Lukas Nelson & POTR return to the Fillmore, for it seems like they could quite possibly be soon moving up to a larger venue like the Warfield Theater in downtown San Francisco or the Fox Theater across the Bay Bridge in uptown Oakland. With their instrumental prowess and zeitgeist songwriting, it seems only a matter of time until POTR are one of the biggest bands in the land.