Lukas Nelson
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real Reach for the Stars to Rock Earth

PopMatters catches up with old soul Lukas Nelson to get his savvy thoughts on songwriting, surviving 2020, and blazing his own trail.

A Few Stars Apart
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Fantasy Records
11 June 2021

We here at PopMatters have been big fans of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real ever since catching a barnburner show from the quintet at Antone’s Nightclub in Austin, Texas in 2011. Antone’s was only half-filled that night despite tickets going for merely $10, but that didn’t stop the band from delivering a smoking set showcasing a group whose star was on the rise. 

The light attendance at that 2011 show in a music town like Austin became truly ironic in 2021 when the band returned to Antone’s in late June for a sold-out performance where coveted tickets were reportedly going for premium prices from scalpers outside. That was no surprise as Nelson & POTR have been building momentum throughout the past decade — winning new fans opening for dad; sitting in with Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh at a Furthur show at the LA Greek Theater; dazzling attendees with a two-and-a-half-hour set on a Saturday night near San Diego; transforming a Mexican cantina in Malibu into a sonic temple of rock; becoming the backing band for music legend Neil Young; and delivering one of our favorite shows of 2019 in their long-awaited debut headlining performance at San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium.

One of the things that set this dynamic quintet apart from the pack, in addition to Nelson’s diverse songwriting and guitar skills, is percussionist Tato Melgar, whose polyrhythmic power adds a cosmic cowboy trot of sorts to help generate the band’s signature sound. “Tato is an intricate part of the overall Promise of the Real sound,” Nelson says. “Tato is sort of like the glue, energetically… when we play live, it’s easier to see how that affects the live show.” 

There’s also readily apparent chemistry between Nelson and bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, and keyboardist Logan Metz. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the live music business in 2020, Lukas Nelson was already visiting dad Willie’s ranch near Austin and was fortuitously able to spend the next six months with his immediate family. Like many artists, he helped fans get through the quarantine blues by regularly uploading fresh performances in his “Quarantunes” and “Soundcheck Songs” video series.

The 32-year-old troubadour says he saw a message relating to the spiritual wisdom of the Hopi prophecies going around on social media at the beginning of the pandemic that profoundly hit him. “The words really resonated with me. It was sort of about how are you going to treat this time? Are you going to spiral downwards into a dark pathway and go into a dark portal, or are you going to open up a new portal and come out of it in the best way possible? And I’m grateful that I think I went the latter,” Nelson says. He also stopped smoking cannabis and committed to meditating twice a day. “Anything that I did habitually, I stopped. It was like a hard reset in clarity, and I sort of treated the whole thing like a five or six-month retreat.”

Going deeper on the spiritual views that have helped him successfully navigate a world gone mad in pandemic overdrive, Nelson provided some insights that underscore his persona as an old soul with wisdom beyond his years.

“I’ve been practicing a lot of Taoist teachings like Chi Gong and Tai Chi… but I also pray, you know, and I think that the concept of God, however you want to approach it, it’s a loaded one. But it’s loaded in a way that you can make it what you want it to be, and in that case, it’s a great source of strength, and it’s a pillar that you can lean on. It’s not something that really requires a belief because the energy associated with the concept itself is powerful enough. In a way, when I say I trust in God, I don’t mean I’m trusting in an old white man in a cloud with a beard; it’s far more all-encompassing than that,” Nelson explains.

It sounded like Nelson was alluding to a wider-ranging spiritual approach analogous to Jedi Master Yoda’s description of “The Force” in the popular Star Wars saga from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. He quickly concurred. “And in that way, science and spirituality work hand in hand,” Nelson says, pointing to an ancient concept that has largely been lost in modern society’s longtime efforts to separate science and religion strictly.

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

The band’s much-lauded new album A Few Stars Apart is something of a departure from 2019’s Turn Off the News (Build a Garden), as well as 2020’s companion album Naked Garden in that the songs trend in a quieter and more contemplative direction. Many fans felt that Turn Off the News represented a creative peak of sorts, though the band also caught flack from some sectors of the indie music press who didn’t seem to quite get it.

“They didn’t even really talk about the music honestly, they didn’t like the concept… Turn off the news doesn’t mean don’t pay attention,” Nelson explains, taking issue with how a certain indie rock site didn’t care for celebrity guest appearances and a party atmosphere in the studio while accusing Nelson of being naive about how the world was falling apart during the Trump era.

“I thought that was a little unfair,” Nelson says.“I don’t make records for those people anyways, I make them for the people that love them and for myself.”

Nelson notes that he’s made a number of rock ‘n’ roll records and was aiming to go in a different direction this time around. “The concept of that album [Turn Off the News] is hard to argue with, I think — on both sides of the aisle, we’d all do better if we set down our devices and went out and worked with the land at least a little bit every day. And that can be a metaphor for just giving yourself a break from it all periodically. And so, I think that’s important no matter what. I really like that record too,” Nelson says. “But as far as song for song, I’m more proud of this record personally in terms of the songwriting. This was a songwriter’s record.”

Nelson expanded on the theme, noting that he felt inspired to follow in the footsteps of some of his favorite singer/songwriters on A Few Stars Apart. “I’m proud of the musicianship in the band and the restraint. This is not a very jammy record… and I’ve always been a fan of hearing a song from start to beginning. It’s like a short story to me. I like the subtle poetry of being able to say a lot with a little,” Nelson says, citing relevant influences including JJ Cale and Bob Dylan.

Fans looking for a more rocking album do not need to fret, however, as Nelson doesn’t plan to stop rocking out anytime soon. “There’ll be a time when I do another rock ‘n’ roll record, but I’ve done so many of those, and we hadn’t done a record of just songs for the sake of songs. I get bored honestly, listening to guitar solo after guitar solo,” Nelson explains, though he also cited some exceptions. 

“One of my favorite records of Hendrix’s was Are You Experienced. You don’t hear a lot of guitar solos on that record. It’s not a jammy record, it’s short songs, and if there’s a solo, it’s melodic and lyrical. Or, like George Harrison approaches soloing, it’s exactly what the song needs. And I promise you we’ll make more jammy records, but this one was not meant to be that.”

There’s been a soul-searching vibe of sorts throughout Nelson’s songwriting career, and this is perhaps more apparent than ever on A Few Stars Apart. The opening track, “We’ll Be Alright”, feels like a love letter to humanity on the theme of perseverance through these challenging times. The title track also comes from deep in the heart as Nelson was inspired by the untimely passing of a close friend, putting his grief into song to describe how we’re all only a few stars apart from departed loved ones.

But it’s not like Promise of the Real suddenly became a country band, as the album still contains some rocking ear candy with tunes like the uplifting “Perennial Bloom (Back to You)” and the shimmering “Wildest Dream”. Another compelling tune is “Leave ‘em Behind”, which sounds almost as if it could be a lost Neil Young track from the early ‘70s.

“It kind of is a coincidence, to be honest. We wanted to do a mostly acoustic album, and because of my influences with Neil and Dylan, you know, sort of Blood on the Tracks style,” Nelson says. ”Blood on the Tracks is my favorite Dylan record, it’s very mellow… and I like Beck’s Mellow Gold, that’s one of my fave records. So I wanted to have something that was like more of an easy-listening sort of, really just something pleasing to the ears. That song is really fun to sing because it’s kind of almost like a round. The concept, of course, is heavy, but a lot of people have resonated with that song.”

Nelson has proven to be one of the more diverse songwriters of the 21st century, which has only grown more and more apparent across the past few albums. He’s also developed a strong talent for writing songs with a genuine universal appeal, such as “Where Does Love Go When It Dies?” from Turn Off the News. “‘Where Does Love Go When it Dies’ is really sort of like a whimsical philosophical ode to the idea that energy is never really created or destroyed. So what happens when love disappears, it just shifts or morphs,” Nelson says regarding this eternal mystery.

Other standout gems from varying sonic landscapes have included “Entirely Different Stars” and “Speak the Truth” from Naked Garden. Nelson says the spaceship trip of “Entirely Different Stars” was inspired by binging Adult Swim’s popular sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty. “It would be fantastic if I could just travel around with a benevolent or maybe mischievous alien guide,” Nelson says of the song that also laments how his home planet is “ruled by greed and fear” and features one of the band’s more extended in-studio performances.

When queried as to whether he had been following the recent news cycle surrounding the build-up to the Pentagon’s release of their Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force Report to Congress in June, Nelson expressed displeasure with the outcome that mirrored the public’s general discontent. “It was very disappointing to me — ‘Oh yeah, we don’t know what it is and send us more money.’”

Nelson isn’t shy about speaking out about deeper truth here on the third stone from the sun, such as on the bluesy “Speak the Truth”, which feels sort of like it follows in the footsteps of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth”.

“It’s a straightforward sort of tune there, and it’s fun to play live, it’s a groove, you know. I was thinking one day I’ll make a whole record of blues and soul songs. ‘Find Yourself’ is sort of our most popular song to date, and it’s a soul song basically,” Nelson says, referencing a fan favorite that has two different versions on Spotify, which have totaled more than 18 million spins.

Lukas Nelson
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Nelson can impress on lead guitar as he pleases and is even known to play with his teeth as Jimi Hendrix did. But he says he recognized the importance of the songs at an early age. “I always knew there’s always going to be a better guitar player, always going to be someone faster who can play more lyrical. What separates someone from just being a guitar hero kind of person is the songs. So that’s so much more important to me, the lyrics and melody.”

The songwriting aptitude was apparent early on as Nelson wrote a tune at age 11 titled “You Were It” that his dad Willie liked so much he recorded it on his 2004 album It Always Will Be. “I once had a heart / Now I have a song… that’s who I am at the core,” Nelson says, quoting the deep lyrics from “You Were It”.

Nelson was well ahead of most kids his age in musical development in other ways, too, saying he also got into the Grateful Dead when he was just 11 or 12. “Of course, I was doing acid at like 13. I kind of got all that behind me when I was young and went into a more clear-headed existence once I got past my early 20s. I sort of said, well, I don’t really need that anymore. Now I get high on like, as Ram Dass says, you go up and down so many times, you realize that you might as well just go straight.” 

Like every other band that was sidelined in 2020, Promise of the Real is ready to hit the road with an extensive fall tour. Whether they and other bands will go forward with all their scheduled dates remains to be seen, as indoor shows are already becoming a nebulous question mark due to the Delta variant. But Nelson says the band is ready to cut loose.

“That’s where we’ll play anything from the ‘Pali Gap’ from our first record, the ‘Pali Gap/Hey Baby’ [Hendrix] mashup, and there’s a lot more freedom than we exhibit in the live shows. And even with the songs that we have in these records, there’s room to open up,” Nelson says enthusiastically. 

Fans in some parts of the country will also have the opportunity to catch multiple shows, and Nelson says they can expect to see the band mixing up the setlists some if they do. “We throw in a lot of different tunes. We kind of come up with a setlist every night. There are certain songs that we love playing, so we want to put them in. But we’ll always throw in something different every show. We like to switch it up,” Nelson says.

“There’s a lot of pent up energy from us having not been on the road, so there’s gonna be some rock ‘n’ roll, there’s going to be a lot of dancing, there’s going to be a lot of happy energy and joyful sort of expression, “ Nelson promises.

Lukas Nelson
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.