Lukas Nelson has no more footsteps to follow other than his own. On his new album, Something Real, he and his band, Promise of the Real, take us further down the path Nelson been blazing since 2008, when he and drummer Anthony LoGerfo met at a Neil Young concert and began laying the groundwork for Promise of the Real. Now they’ve reached a point where the past and present have fused into one extraordinary personality.
As with all creative artists, Nelson’s course has been somewhat unpredictable. Though born to country music royalty, he has followed a different muse. Or, more accurately, he has introduced a bunch of muses to each other and locked them into an imaginary room to spend some wild time together.
Something Real is what came out of that room once the party had ended — one vision, rich in its influences, unique and irresistible. Which is to say, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.
One reason for that is that Nelson’s music transcends time. Something Real explodes with a 21st-century urgency. It hits grooves hard on the up-tempo tracks and digs into dark emotional depths in its moodier moments. It’s also haunted by spirits of the past. If the music of Hendrix, Waylon, Duane Allman and other archangels haunt your dreams now and then, you’ll find plenty to love in Something Real.
“Music is like color,” says Nelson, whose intellectual ramblings are as freewheeling as his music. “When I listen to the musicians who affected me when I was growing you, I take from the primary colors to find my foundation. Then I apply secondary colors and the music becomes more and more complex.”
And yet much of Something Real is stripped down and direct. With the addition of Lukas’s brother (honorary member, special guest) and guitarist Micah Nelson, to the lineup of bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar, and drummer LoGerfo, POTR’s sound has acquired more muscle and musical substance, its rhythm more groove. Even so, the group still emanates a primal energy on the riff-driven “Surprise,” the galloping blues shuffle of “Something Real” and other tracks.
“But there’s an emotional complexity in simplicity,” Nelson counters. “Simplicity is never as simple as it seems. Sometimes, if you can hide the complexity inside the simplicity, you get a result that covers a lot of the spiritual spectrum.”
Maybe Nelson didn’t quite articulate his approach that way when he began writing at age 11. Still, that notion has been guiding him since that day he finished his first song, “You Were It.” “That was the birth of my songwriting, right there,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, OK. I seem to be good at this. I wonder if I can open myself up to this channel.”
Willie Nelson, his dad, apparently agreed. After all, he included “You Were It” on his album It Will Always Be.
“I always recognized what a good song was,” Nelson continues. “I’ve had a lot of inspiration in that regard, being the son of one of the greatest songwriters ever. Another piece of the puzzle was this book that my dad’s manager, Mark Rothbaum, gave me when I was a kid. It was called King of the World and it was about Muhammad Ali, who said that every fighter has to believe that there’s one thing in themselves that will help them rise above the rest and become the greatest. When I read that, I felt that songwriting was that for me, in the sense that I understood the way songs and lyrics are constructed.”
Nelson developed his songwriting diligently, devoting a part of each day to coming up with new ideas. “Sometimes I’ll walk into a room and a new song just pops into my head, like a thought,” he says. “That makes total sense to me because, really, songs are frequencies. Your brain is an antenna that picks up thoughts and energies. We receive this input from everywhere. Every place has its own sound imprint. If you’re a musician, it’s your job to write down what you hear when that happens.”
Equally important, POTR was drawing tighter together, with each member playing a critical role. Over time, Nelson says, “We’ve reach a point where we could play together without having to speak much. We’re in a zone now that requires minimal communication. We really feel each other as a band because we’ve gone through so much. We’ve lived together for upwards of 250 shows a year for the last eight years. Anybody would get close together after something like that.”
“We don’t really think about it too hard; it always just kind of works for us,” adds drummer LoGerfo. “Because Lukas is the writer and we’re with him through the writing, we’re in the songs as they come together and we don’t really have to rehearse much. I always wanted to get to the level of playing where we’re at right now.”
While developing his writing chops and building a band identity with his colleagues, Nelson also woodshedded on guitar, to the point that his command of the instrument began raising eyebrows and generating enthusiastic comments in early reviews of POTR. Certainly there’s evidence all over Something Real that he is — let’s not mince words — a virtuoso, in the sense of building a technique and command that allows him to express feelings powerfully and wordlessly.
That said, Nelson sees his playing and his writing as separate facets of his process. To revisit his color metaphor, “It’s like you have this huge hose spraying separate streams of different-colored paint. I consider those colors to be different instruments. And our instruments are like paint brushes to apply that paint.”
But music is more than frequencies — or, if you will, paint. However you describe it, life is the engine that drives Nelson’s music. Throughout Something Real, buoyed by the intensity of the band, he pours emotion into his lyrics, recounting events too painful or personal to articulate matter-of-factly. Instead, he sings passionately, sometimes bordering on a scream, apparently to both communicate and to purge. Sadness permeates “Don’t Want To Fly,” where over an earthy blues bed he confesses, “I had a dream that I lost your love. / It disappeared like yesterday” and then lets a searing guitar solo finish the thought. Later, on “Georgia,” he takes us into the heart of loneliness, mourning that “Ray Charles is singing her name like rain on my window” late on an empty night.
Are the stories he shares drawn from actual experience? For the first time, Nelson hesitates. Then he answers, laughing slightly. “Yeah, without getting in trouble, absolutely. Believe me, it’s all real.”
The one cover on Something Real tells its own truth too. Nelson has performed extensively with Neil Young in recent years as Neil Young + Promise Of The Real, which also features Micah Nelson as a full-fledged member. So it felt right for Nelson to welcome Young onto a rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” In its original release back in the late Sixties, this was a starry-eyed, flower-power anthem, inviting kids to hitch to the coast and join the Summer of Love. Here, half a century later, the song takes on deeper hue, weathered by the loss of innocence and burden of wisdom.
“I love that song,” Nelson reflects. “I’ve been hanging out in San Francisco, and it felt appropriate to belt this out on top of the Victorian mansion where we’ve been recording. San Francisco has always been home to incredible bursts of creativity and illumination followed by a complete overhaul of existing systems and subsequent revolution. It’s kind of like a rotating magnetic pole. If Scott McKenzie’s version was the morning sunrise, then this one is an evening sunset.”
With the past so present in Nelson’s artistry, it’s easy to wonder whether he feels a little out of place. “You know what?” he answers without hesitation. “I feel at home in our time; I just have to look harder. There are musicians around today who are taking the work of older generations, building on it and going even deeper. Musicians have always done that.”
He mentions two contemporaries — Jack White and Regina Spektor — who inspire him. But all who immerse themselves in Something Real, regardless of where in history they feel most at home, know that this short list has to begin with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, already a musical force for the ages.
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