Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real [POTR] brought their superior blend of rock and roll, country, blues and folk to London’s Forum Kentish Town last week, ahead of the release of their highly anticipated new album, Sticks and Stones.
Grammy-Award winning Lukas is the son of Willie Nelson, the prolific songwriter, guitarist and activist (who barely needs an introduction) and, backed by his multi-talented band POTR, and one of the most exciting and in-demand musicians out there today.
Having followed Lukas and POTR since I chanced upon the smouldering Find Yourself (with vocals from Lady Gaga), it was a thrill to be a part of a communal live experience rather than watching clips of them at festivals or shows online. Formed in 2008, they began a nine-show tour opening for Willie Nelson before releasing their first EP, Brando’s Paradise Sessions, in 2019. Their first album, Promise of the Real, debuted in 2010.
Legendary BBC Radio 2 presenter “Whispering Bob” Harris had the honour of introducing Lukas and the band, explaining with a grin that he was wearing the very same shirt when he first met Lukas. The crowd roared when the man himself appeared in a cowboy hat and a friendly greeting of “Alright!’ This is a song called Sticks and Stones – thanks for coming out tonight”, as he launched into the title track from the new album. It was a spirited opener with an hooky chorus that received a warm reception from the audience. With Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her, from his Dad Willie Nelson’s 60th studio album Heroes, Lukas seemed completely at ease, his arm resting cooly on his guitar during brief pauses.
We were given a taste of songs from the new album, including More Than Friends, a gutsy duet with Lainey Wilson which reached No. 1 on the US Americana chart. It’s a rollicking country-rock anthem, with an infectious chorus and a cheeky message, “Forget tomorrow, we can face the music then/but I promise you tonight will never end.” Ladder of Love had an uptempo feel, but it was current track Alcohallelujah which sent the Forum into a happy frenzy (with quite a few people, I suspect, having enjoyed a few pre-gig spirits in the sunshine) with its soaring chorus and witty lyrics.
There’s much to be excited about in terms of new material, but Lukas and POTR have an exquisite back catalogue to draw on, and track’s from 2017s Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real were brought to life on the night. The twangy Fool Me Once had everyone dancing, as did the perky Carolina. “Back in the US, I introduce this song by saying it’s about a place in the far East, but here we’re kind of far West” he quipped from the stage, as we all became very happy with the concept of taking our Texas time. I got chatting to a lovely couple next to me, and the lady shouted excitedly over thumping drums and hand claps that she had been to see Lukas in Nashville. I made a mental note to add this to my bucket list.
With the rockier, more bluesy Four Letter Word, which examines the perils of marriage, the band were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we were, delivering some truly excellent guitar riffs, and Lukas faced his band before taking a huge leap at the finale.
Find Yourself was a personal highlight for me. After a quick guitar swap, a swift plug in and a clack of the drum sticks, the track played out across the venue and it sounded incredible live. Lukas displayed his impressive vocal range, oscillating between sweet vocals and a huge roar, before commanding us, his congregation, to “Sing it with me. Take me to church, London! One more time as loud as you can!” as we happily obliged.
He took the time to introduce his bandmates; Anthony LoGerfo on drums, Corey McCormick on bass, Tato Melgar on percussion and Logan Metz on keys and was happy and natural on stage, talking to the crowd and sharing anecdotes. Lukas has said that the new album “celebrates the human connection, joy and excitement” and he had no problem establishing that connection with the audience, judging by the huge cheers, claps and appreciate bobbing of the odd cowboy hat in the crowd.
As well as the chance to dance and be merry, the set also included some more poignant tracks. Just Outside of Austin, with its soothing refrain and instantly recognisable opening riff was bewitching. When introducing (Forget About) Georgia, we leaned in close as Lukas recounted how the song came about. “A while back I went out with this girl named Georgia. I’d be out singing with my Dad and we stopped seeing each other. Then I wrote a song called (Forget About) Georgia”. This stunning track evoked a range of emotions; the couple next to me hugged just a bit closer, a group in front of me swayed dreamily, arm-in-arm and Lukas himself had eyes closed, seemingly lost in the music and beautiful harmonies. When he replaced “We made love for the first time in a hotel in San Francisco with “…London, England,” the crowd definitely appreciated the shout out.
All the Pretty Horses from 2010’s debut Promise of the Real was beautiful, as was Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) from 2019’s fifth studio album of the same name, with its important call to action to switch off from the news, raise the kids and give them something to believe in.
Lukas seemed moved by the reaction of the crowd. “Thank you. Thank you” he said, with a smile, telling us that it was “Dad’s birthday recently, he was 90 years old” before breaking into Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, Willie’s song which Lukas recently performed live at the Hollywood Bowl for Willie’s 90th Birthday Celebration Concert. The achingly beautiful Smile, from 2021’s A Few Stars Apart followed, then, with the punchy drums of Begging You, Kentish Town was rocking out again. The drummer, Anthony, flung his drumsticks into the air, as Lukas thanked the crowd warmly, hat in his hands, and they left the stage which signalled the end of the main set.
Fortunately, it was only a momentary pause as an organ-style intro rang out then the familiar chords of Set Me Down On A Cloud, the standout opener to 2017’s Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, formed the encore. It was an emotional and spine-tingling ending to a memorable and big-hearted performance, that celebrated love, heartbreak, celebration, longing and self-reflection and one that will stay with me a long time.
With this, Lukas tipped his hat, and thanked us so much for coming. “I’m Lukas Nelson, and we’re Promise of the Real” he said to a rapturous crowd.
As the lights came on, I noticed the man in front of me was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Everything is fine’, and for those precious couple of hours with Lukas Nelson and POTR, with their lush guitars, exquisite musicianship and dazzling vocal performances, it absolutely was.
Review of Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real at The Forum on 15th June 2023 by Nicola Greenbrook. Photography by Simon Reed.