Editor’s note: Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real play Saturday, Aug. 20, at Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort.
Lukas Nelson remembers a pair of weekends that have informed his idea of the kind of concert experience that works well for him and his band, Promise of the Real.
They were playing the Coachella Festival near Los Angeles and serving, as they frequently do, as the backing band for rock legend Neil Young.
“Neil’s set was the only one, the only set, where that huge (video) screen (wasn’t used). He said ‘I don’t want that huge screen up there.’ So we put a big burlap bag over the screen,” Nelson recalled in a recent phone interview. “It was a big feed bag because our whole thing, it was the ‘Monsanto’ record (a stinging look at genetically modified foods) so we were throwing seeds out to the audience. And you know what, I’ve got to say we were one of the best sets on that show both weekends. I could tell that people were listening and focusing on the music.”
And while Nelson noted the visual production for his current tour has been elevated where it makes sense, he needed to be careful with his budget. Despite taking all precautions, there’s always a chance that someone involved with the tour could get infected with Covid and force shows to be canceled. More to the point, he wants to avoid putting together a show where the visual effects overshadow the music.
“I don’t know what we could do up there other than a few little things that we will do as time goes by, a couple of little things that we’ll develop,” Nelson said. “And the lighting is crucial. Other than that, there’s really not much, it’s not a Tiesto show.”
Nelson wasn’t making fun of the EDM scene and its reliance on visual effects to help carry those shows. There’s a place for that type of experience.
But don’t expect a 21st century version of a Pink Floyd show. For what Nelson and Promise of the Real want to achieve, it’s mainly about the music.
“Really the point of the shows is to make people dance and have fun and get lost in it. I think we can do that just as effectively as an electronic show,” Nelson said. “I feel that we’ve got enough bounce and rhythm and then also to be able to get quiet and play a song where you can hear a pin drop in the same place that before was yelling and screaming. And the dynamics of what we do come from the music itself, and I think that people resonate with that.”
And Nelson and Promise of the Real are growing into the kind of band where the songs provide a rich listening experience both in concert or at home.
Formed in 2008 after Nelson (son of country legend Willie Nelson) had attended Loyola Marymount University, the group had a very busy dozen years leading into the pandemic. Things began with a self-released concert EP, “Live Beginnings,” in 2008, followed by a studio EP, “Brando’s Paradise Sessions,” the next year. By 2010, when the band released its first full-length album, “Promise of the Real,” things were really ramping up on the touring front, with the group maintaining a schedule that saw more than 200 shows each year for much of the decade.
Along the way, a second album, “Wasted,” arrived in 2012 and Nelson made an important contact in Young, who befriended Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real after seeing the band perform at Farm Aid in 2010.
The friendship grew into a working relationship in 2015 when Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real played on Young’s 2015 “The Monsanto Years” album and became one of Young’s backing bands. Young’s 2016 live album, “Earth,” was drawn from the 2015 “The Monsanto Years” tour, and Young and the group then resumed their collaboration on Young’s 2017 studio release, “The Visitor,” and contributed to the soundtrack to “Paradox,” a film featuring Young’s girlfriend, Daryl Hannah. Lukas Nelson and his brother, Micah, also appeared in the film.
A third Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real album, a self-titled effort arrived in 2017, and around this time, Lukas Nelson was brought on to co-produce and write music for the remake of the movie “A Star Is Born,” which starred Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real appeared in the film as Cooper’s backing band.
These projects — along with Lukas and Micah collaborating with their father on the 2017 album, “Willie Nelson and the Boys (Willie’s Stash, Vol. 2)” — significantly elevated the profile of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.
At the same time, the group continued to develop musically. And with the 2019 album “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)” and last year’s “A Few Stars Apart,” the group has really staked out more of its own sound and Nelson’s songwriting has taken a noticeable step up.
Where the first couple of albums favored a harder-hitting, riffy and rootsy guitar rock sound, these impressive two newest records have settled into more of an expansive country-and-soul-infused sound that can still rock – just note “Perennial Bloom (Back To You)” and “Wildest Dreams” from “A Few Stars Apart.” Other songs, especially on the latest album, are more relaxed, but boast rich melodies, heartfelt lyrics and sympathetic backing from singer/guitarist Nelson and band members Logan Metz (keyboards), Anthony LoGerfo (drums), Tato Melgar (percussion) and Corey McCormick (bass).
The entire album has a warm, organic spirit, which may be a product of the songs being recorded live in the studio to analog tape with the help of producer Dave Cobb, whose work with acts such as Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell have made him one of music’s most in-demand producers.
The songs on “A Few Stars Apart” were written during the pandemic as Nelson adjusted to the shock of being shut out from touring.
“It was all we could do but sit and think,” Nelson said. “And I figured probably the most (useful) thing to do would be to write songs at that point, to be productive. Otherwise, I could see myself spinning my wheels considerably. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to channel my frustrations or my fears or my energies, whatever restlessness I knew I was going to have. I knew things would come up. I wanted to make sure I was in the habit of writing to channel that instead of letting it bottle up inside.”
“A Few Stars Apart” has its moments that relate to the pandemic situation (“We’ll Be Alright” is the obvious example), but much of the album centers on romance and finds light within the darker moments. Nelson said the time away from touring and time for self-reflection will help him find a better balance in his life going forward.
“I was really sort of scared for a while to sort of relax because, I mean, we were doing 250-plus shows a year for as long as I can remember. So to stop, I was afraid. I was afraid of what would happen,” he said. “I started to realize I can have a balance. I can sit and enjoy my time off and I won’t need to be on the road. I’m not running anymore from anything. I can deal with myself. I went through the fire and came out on the other side. I think I faced my demons. Then I realized I could also really appreciate being on the road at the same time.”
-Alan Sculley, Last Word Features