Country music has come a long way, there are now as many variants and classifications into sub groups as there are for rock and roll. The music crosses over into all other musical genres. The prevailing image of country as ‘Big Hat’ corporate stadium bands who sing about Christian values, driving your truck and falling in love with a demure ‘good girl’ or a gun toting Daisy Duke wearing ‘bad girl’ has fallen away leaving room for a resurgence of American folk music, storytelling, and crossover.
This is process that started in the early ‘60s and hit a kind of Golden Age in the ‘70s with artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and bands like the Eagles and The Allman Brothers. Flash forward to a time when big pop acts start with country roots, and the next generation of artists. Enter Lukas Nelson son of musical icon Willie Nelson and together with his band, The Promise of the Real he has toured as backup for Neil Young. Nelson kindly gave his time to RockShot to provide a little insight into his career and to see a performance at his bands only UK date at Soho’s Borderline.
The Borderline is in recovery from its face lift like a literal surgical patient, being monitored for vital signs and still unsure who it will be when it looks in the mirror. Once rooted as a London venue for Americana it is now listed as a dance club online. It features a selfie corridor, but looking at the crowd assembled tonight – I believe this sign of modern times is lost on them. A mix of down to earth older music lovers and folky looking mix of younger people sporting the ‘Southwestern ‘70s look – round two’ are milling about having loud conversations about new era country acts like First Aid Kit and Australian, Morgan Evans. The scale of the venue is still intimate, dark and inconspicuous enough from the front that entering this club still feels like being let in on a secret.
Arriving on stage Nelson gives the band a generous intro allowing time for each member to receive their due audience appreciation. Without a moment of hesitation, they charge straight into Die Alone. The warmth and generosity that the band shares is clear, they are confident and synchronous playing together. Nelson picks out some complex rocking blues and when he sings, his voice is clear and familiar, yet fresh. The Promise of the Real have had almost a decade playing together starting out as Neil Young’s backing band.
The day before the show Nelson told of how the band assembled. “We just did another record with Neil and we’ll probably be on the road with him this summer. The last two shows with Neil were Farm Aid and then, before that Desert Trip. Which was great show with McCartney and The Stones, the whole deal, a great bill. My band is just an incredible live band. They can hold their own with the greatest rock and roll bands out there in the world. It’s nice to have that. So, I met my drummer Anthony Fogerfo at a Neil Young concert eight, no ten years ago now. Then seven or eight years later we became Neil’s band, which is a nice full circle there.
The name The Promise of the Real came from a Neil young song called Walk On. “Some get stoned some get strange, Sooner or later it all gets real, Walk on.” To me being real is having integrity, being true to yourself in the moment. To have authenticity in the moment. It’s not necessarily better or worse, it’s just being authentic to yourself and not being influenced by trends or that kind of thing. So, the name itself is a reminder to me to stay true to who I am and the music.” That sentiment rings true in every element of their performance.
Four Letter Word is clever song with lyrical reminiscences of Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and musical refrain which might well be from the nursery tune Mama’s Little Baby Love Shortenin’. Nelson comes into his own with his guitar craft. Playing Fool Me Once, you can hear how closely matched his voice is with his father’s vocal timbre. When asked
If he has embraced the fact that he sounds quite a lot like his father, he answers, “Yeah, maybe ‘embraced’ is not the word but, I’ve never resisted it. I sound like I sound, I guess. Can’t change that.”
In Johnny Cash’s biopic Shooter Jennings playing his Dad, would Lukas Nelson ever be tempted to portray his father, Willie Nelson? He answers with a half smile, “Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know.” Nelson has flirted with the movies already appearing in small project with friend and neighbour Woody Harrelson and more significantly in his upcoming project with Lady Gaga.
“I met her working on the A Star Is Born movie, with Bradley Cooper.” This is the third remake of the film about a woman whose star is on the rise, who is helped by a struggling older man whose best days are behind him. The original was set in Hollywood in 1937, then came Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 before the story was transplanted to the music industry with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand in 1976. “[Gaga], her and I wrote a bunch of songs for that movie. I was consulting Bradley before that on how to kind of be an authentic rock star. We’re acting in the movie too, the band, the whole band is in the movie. The band played most of the songs, ninety percent of the music in the movie is played by the band, which is awesome too.”
Long-time friend and roadie Brian Hager jumps up between songs to change out guitars wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Failed Musician’, most certainly as an act of self-deprecation, besides loyalty runs deep in The Promise of the Real as Hager is name checked and thanked for his hard work for the near alternating instrument swaps. The quick guitar change allows for a slower, classic country sound on the only one of Neil Young’s songs to make it into the set, Cinnamon Girl. Nelson’s guitar playing style is rich with talent.
He shudders as if physically connected to each vibration. “Last time we were here we were Neil Young’s band, at the O2.” There is a whoop from the crowd as Nelson humbly gives thanks for the introduction. Running Shine a song about running moonshine is a classic piece of American storytelling, echoing the eternal struggle of simple folk trying to survive. Nelson sounds more like his father on this track than any other song thanks to long pure notes with a natural vibrato. The song finishes songs with an excellent moment of musicianship as Nelson and drummer, Tony Logerfo finally lock eyes, gripped in a moment of mutual joy.
The trust in this band is clear from watching drummer Logerfo, who regardless of being positioned behind the band, is mimicked perfectly by the band. Like some kind of platonic, musical Orpheus and Eurydice one is trusting the other to keep time without the confirmation of a glance. Logerfo plays with great flourish and the broad smile of deep satisfaction that the best music brings to musicians who submit to the rapture of the moment. This is a band who spend most of their time on the road, living together in close quarters.
When asked how they get along off stage Nelson says, “We all have our moments, but we’re very mellow. And we’re used to being on the road together. It’s been that way for years now, so we know what buttons set each other off and we don’t press them. So, everybody gets along and we are all pretty mellow personalities, for the most part. I mean, it’s like living on a submarine, we’re on a bus all year long.” The camaraderie that results from shared experiences translates beautifully when they are all on stage.
It is clear this is not a tour that bares the trademarks signs of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of his father’s generation. The group keep a calm regimen, and continue working, when asked about staying centred during life on the road Nelson says, “I run, I try and keep a pretty good diet. I try and eat pretty well and stay in shape with stretching and running when I can. I also meditate. That’s’ pretty much my routine.” What does a musician listen to in the tour bus? “I’m listening to [John] Coltrane.
The Gentle Side of Coltrane has been a record that has been most played, and I listen to a lot of Jobim and Sinatra, you know that record they did. It is relaxing music, that’s for sure. Especially when I’m travelling, it’s nice to have that kind of mellow soundtrack happening.” Does he write on the road, “Yeah, I wrote a song last night.” Is it influenced by travel, or is it the distance from home that gives Nelson perspective? “No [it’s not distance from home], ‘cause I don’t really have a home. I think it’s more perspective, different perspectives give me new inspiration. Sometimes a break in the routine is nice to spark a different neural pattern, so I write on the road a lot. He seems content with this lifestyle dividing his time between the family home in Maui, the base for his band in Los Angeles and the road.
There is some heavy rocking on Something Real. The lyrical content should clear up any questions anyone might have about Nelson’s political views. In the steam of the orange light Lukas Nelson is a one-man representation of the allure of rock n roll. What follows is a hard rock that verges in heavy metal with powerful licks and a driving beat. Reminiscent of the hard rocking blues of say, Dr Feelgood. Nelson shreds with precision, leaving no doubt about his technical abilities and raw musical talent.
Switches out to his acoustic guitar with permission from the crowd. “This song is about my hometown Austin, Texas”. Just Outside of Austin is a warm, romantic, and nostalgic love letter to the city. Most folks know Austin as a musical hotspot and host to massive multi-platform creative festival SXSW, or rather inversely as a bureaucratic centre for government which boasts the greatest ever strapline for a city, “Keep Austin Weird”. Austin is more than Nelson’s hometown it is the starting point for his relationship with music.
Currently based on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Nelson reflected on why it is still American roots music at the heart of his sound, “I was born in Austin, Texas. That’s where I was raised for the first part of my life, and my father was a country musician, obviously, so that’s part of my heritage and upbringing no matter where I was. I was travelling a lot, on the road with my Dad. My first musical experiences were with Johnny Cash, (Kris) Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, as The Highwaymen. That was the first tour when I came into the world, that was happening. I was an infant up to when I was seven or eight years old across that period of time. It was late ‘80s, early ‘90s that’s when the tour was happening, so I remember.
Playing his second cover of the night, a gorgeous cover of Tom Petty’s Breakdown with so much emotion overlaid on a sparsely picked out tune. Nelson sites Petty as an important artist in his relationship with music. When asked about some of the allstar line-ups he has played with and about any artists he would love to share a stage with, he sighed, “Man, I’ve said it before. Tom Petty was a huge one for me, I really feel like I relate to him career wise in having a great band. The Heartbreakers and The Promise of the Real have a lot in common and Tom and I have a lot in common. I think in terms of where we come from and the music. Just like Neil and Crazy Horse, so he would have been one. I’m blessed to have gotten to see him. It was a tragedy.” This cover certainly does honour to that musical connection.
As for artists he still wants to collaborate with, he muses, “McCartney maybe, we’ve met him, and he’s come to a couple of our shows, we hung out. We opened for him with Neil at Desert Trip, which was fantastic. But it would be cool to jam with him and play. I think we would get along musically. (thinking) I don’t know, there’s some great bands out there. Tame Impala, Portugal.The Man, Cage the Elephant. There’s some great music out there that we might be able to get behind or relate to”.
“I was once in love with a girl named Georgia. The bitch of the thing was that I had to go out and sing Georgia On My Mind with my dad every night on the road even after we stopped seeing each other. So, I wrote this song Forget About Georgia”. As the lyrics sum it up, “Part of me hopes that she’ll never forget about me.” In the crescendo of the song Nelson unleashed his inner Hendrix chewing his guitar shredding out the tune with his teeth, and melting into dreamy jazz flow. The incredible ‘Steve’ plays a hypnotic mix on the electric steel guitar under the spotlight with the full attention of the band.
The audience relish a bit of participation on big single Find Yourself. Find Yourself is sweet with a soulful melody and playing to the strengths of Nelson’s voice. A plucky anthem to good self-esteem is still a rare thing after almost 100 years of songs about not being able to live without someone and love at first sight. Even rarer is that this comes from a male songwriter. Nelson has some real song writing chops, when asked if he ever wanted to just sell his songs, or if he always knew he wanted to perform his own material, he says, “I’ve always known I wanted to record. Not many people have bought my songs yet, if they want to I might entertain the offer. I’ve been singing them myself.
I wrote a song for Lady Gaga, called The Cure, that’s kind of my only foray into that. Or for my Dad, I’ve written a couple of songs.” He comments on so casually. that like it’s nothing, when both are major song writers in their own right. He humbly explains, “Yeah, and with Gaga, it was with her and a team of song writers, we sat down and did that, and I enjoy that process a lot.” Taking a confessional tone, he adds, “I actually did write a song for the My Little Pony Soundtrack.” Does this make him a Brony? “Yeah, I’m a Brony!” Does Nelson normally collaborate when writing? “No, I usually don’t but for those projects I did, and usually the pop projects tend to have a lot more collaboration. There are certain producers in the pop world who have a few song writers who they go to directly. So, unless you know the artist and they insist on doing this, even then sometimes, it’s always the label who pressure them to have certain writers involved. It makes it difficult to do what you want to do. Very rarely is a pop song written by just one person these days.
“Is it alright if we do one more for you?” There are enthusiastic yelps from the crowd. Whilst fully rocking out during encore number The Awakening, Nelson glances up in a micro gesture checking the height of the ceiling before busting out some impressive rock jumps. The whole band gives an extraordinary finish travelling through a musical and emotional spectrum. Building to a conclusion of soul and blues rapture that saw the whole band throwing their bodies up and hammering down with every beat. Just as they promised, they delivered. There is a purity and authenticity to the music that is lacking in corporate country and rock and roll – this is real music straight from the heart.
The Promise of the Real continue on tour with dates in Europe, before crossing the USA and bringing the tour to Australia in Spring ’18.
Lukas Nelson will return tot he UK for C2C Festival 9th-11th March 2018.
A Star Is Born is set for general release on 18th May 2018.