Photo: Jim Eckenrode

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real + Insects vs Robots

What really puts Lukas Nelson at a higher level is how he’s just as good a soulful songwriter as he is a guitar player, a rare and special combination.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

It was a Friday night in the land of Lebowski with a festive atmosphere in effect at Casa Escobar along California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Margaritas were the libation of the evening rather than White Russians, however, since this venue was in fact a Mexican restaurant. What’s that, a restaurant was hosting the weekend’s top show in the nation’s second largest city? Hard to fathom at first glance this was, but upon closer inspection the scenario proved legit.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real have been winning raves across the nation over the past few years and the fact they have yet to outgrow such small venues is a treat. If Nelson had come of age 15-20 years earlier while MTV was still in its heyday, he probably would have rocketed to stardom much faster. The 27-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter seems to be perfectly content though and why not? His skills as an old soul who was born to rock ‘n’ roll are so readily apparent that he and his band were selected to back Neil Young on his latest album The Monsanto Years and 2015 fall tour. Nelson has also sat in with members of the Grateful Dead, toured with his dad Willie and is still just digging into his own band’s massive potential.

This evening was another family affair with younger brother Micah’s band Insects vs Robots opening the show and then sitting in for a mindboggling encore that felt like it might blow the proverbial roof off across the highway into the Pacific Ocean. This was far from how things appeared poised to play out early on though. Casa Escobar has a fairly typical vibe for a Mexican restaurant and seemed filled with a standard Malibu dining crowd. But appearances can be deceiving, especially in and around a land of make believe like the City of Angels.

Insects vs Robots hit the stage shortly after 9:30 pm and were as well received as one could hope under the circumstances. Many were still dining or drinking at the bar, but the small stage area was filled to near capacity with interested onlookers. The vocal mix on the small PA wasn’t the clearest, hindering Micah Nelson’s ability to connect with the audience. But the band’s experimental psychedelic global sound translated better than might at first be expected. The band utilized a variety of non-traditional instruments, including an electric violin for an extra melodic jamming element. A trippy light show enhanced the vibe as well.

The “organic margaritas” were tasting great during setbreak while appetizing smells still wafted from the kitchen, with most tables still filled with diners. There was therefore still some question about what level of rock show this was going to be. But it didn’t take Lukas Nelson long to make himself at home at Casa Escobar. He wisely started the show on acoustic guitar for the first couple songs, showing a veteran savvy to ease the audience in gradually. Nelson switched over to electric for “Four Letter Word” and the rock show was in effect — people were jostling for position as Casa Escobar suddenly transformed into the Lukas Nelson roadhouse of the Real.

Nelson forms a power trio with drummer Anthony LoGerfo (who he synchronistically met at a Neil Young show in 2008) and bassist Corey McCormick, with percussionist Tato Melgar adding an extra polyrhythmic element. The band’s ability to seamlessly traverse blues, rock, funk and Americana into what they now call “cowboy hippie surf rock” sets them apart in an era where so many bands feel they have to stick to one sound. Nelson said they were going to keep it funky with the next tune and did so with “Living It Up,” where he sang some deep lyrics about how you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else. The bluesy “Find Yourself” had a similar theme, revealing Nelson once again as a songwriter beyond his years.

The raucous “Something Real,” the title track from the band’s impending third album, kept things rocking vibrantly. “I’m begging you to give me something real,” Nelson sings urgently in what seems like an anthem for the current age of deceptive advertising that permeates the pop culture world. An electrifying cover of JJ Cale’s “Make Love to You Anytime” saw the band take the groovy tune and crank it up a notch for some high octane rock. Melgar was key here with ace percussion to help crank up the roadhouse dance party.

The band owned Casa Escobar now, dropping a Jimi Hendrix “Who Knows” tease before a sizzling instrumental jam on Pink Floyd’s “Money” and a cover of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” that seemed to be a particular crowd pleaser for all the ladies. The set came to a rousing finish with Nelson’s personal anthem “Start to Go,” where the band rocks out as he sings of walking steady with his guitar ready. The jam featured Nelson playing a guitar solo with his teeth ala Hendrix before shredding melty hot licks on another solo that could easily place him as a contender with any of the modern music scene’s current guitar heroes.

What really puts Lukas Nelson at a higher level is how he’s just as good a soulful songwriter as he is a guitar player, a rare and special combination. He also knows how to craft a setlist to keep a set energized and a crowd engaged. All of these talents were on display in the show’s extra special encore when Insects vs Robots were welcomed back to the stage with Micah Nelson fronting both bands combined for an incendiary rendition of Neil Young’s obscure yet epic song “Like an Inca.” Taken from his critically lambasted 1982 album Trans, the song stands out like the title track from The Doors’ Soft Parade album — an incredibly ambitious song that caps an otherwise underwhelming album with a big finish.

“Like an Inca” had the audience grooving in bliss and captivated by the deep lyrics: “Said the condor to the preying mantis, We’re gonna lose this place just like we lost Atlantis, Brother we got to go sooner than you know, The Gypsy told my fortune, she said that nothin’ showed,” sang Micah, relating Young’s lyrics about a planet on the edge of cataclysmic disaster. The performance also featured a psychedelic trance dance jam that took the audience on a true sonic journey. The Nelson brothers were throwing down a heavy sermon using the power of music to transform an ordinary venue into a sacred musical temple. The effect was downright intoxicating. Upon returning from the visionary journey to Peru, the ensemble brought the audience back to Malibu with a smoking take on the Doors’ “LA Woman.” Lukas Nelson’s impersonation of both Jim Morrison and Robby Krieger concluded the evening’s performance with yet another crowd-pleasing flourish to wrap the show in style.

The Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists indicates that Earth is indeed in imminent peril due to the apocalyptic threats of nuclear war and global climate change. But those who believe rock ‘n’ roll is here to help save the world can take some comfort that there’s a new generation of musicians out to raise awareness of such matters through music, and perhaps catalyze genuine change in society. Such was the promise of rock ‘n’ roll during the socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s and that promise lives on with Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real.

RATING 9 / 10