At the Corner of Austin and Nelson
Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real – live at the Hard Rock Café, Vancouver Canada.
From the very first time I heard Lukas Nelson play guitar in his dad’s band more than a decade ago, I was hooked by his sincerity and obvious love for music. In itself, there’s nothing really very surprising about that. It would be strange if a musician’s son didn’t like or know how to play music, but that’s not what caught my attention. It’s not that he was the best guitarist I’d ever heard. In the beginning, it wasn’t as much what Lukas Nelson played on the guitar, as the spirit with which he played it that was so inspiring. It’s like this. Most of the musicians I usually went out to see, or interview and write about had been in the business for decades. And, even though many of these artists were still making great and vital music, I’d noticed that at a certain time in many musicians’ careers, professionalism and skill begin to edge out passion and enthusiasm. It’s not that artists like Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana aren’t still playing well; rather, it’s more that they’ve already explored most of the musical territory that interests them and instead of going out and searching for new adventures, they have opted for honing their craft and presenting their musical ideas in the best light possible. Listening to Lukas Nelson isn’t like that. What caught me about Lukas – right from the start – was that whenever he went on stage, you could hear him taking risks, reaching for notes, arriving at a particular sound and naturally tuning into it to explore all of its permutations. You could literally hear him burning his way through his influences, sorting, collecting and rejecting musical ideas right as they unfolded on stage. He would play old songs like ‘Hootchie Kootchie Man’ or Jimi Hendrix’s ‘New Rising Sun’ that I had heard hundreds of times before and never thought I wanted to hear again in such a way that you were instantly reminded of how good a song it was. Songs that a lot of people of my generation would never play outside of a basement jam or a campfire, he instilled with new life, energy and clarity. I always left a ‘Promise Of the Real’ show with a feeling of gratitude, rediscovery and happiness that went deeper than the music that I had heard. From the very beginning, Lukas Nelson has been a performer blessed with both soul and technique.
When I’ve told friends, music promoters, booking agents, and managers of record stores about Lukas Nelson and the Promise Of The Real, a lot of them have taken me up on my recommendations and listened to the band’s first couple of CDs. To my surprise, they’d often get back to me and ask me what the heck I was on about. Apparently my friends and I were hearing different music. Thinking about it, I began to realize that maybe Lukas Nelson’s spirit and energy didn’t always come through in the early recordings or live up to the promise of the band’s live shows. Listening objectively, I can see why many of my friends came to the conclusions they did, though I still think songs like ‘Sound Of Your Memory’ and ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind’ from Promise Of The Real’s debut are very fine compositions that should gain in reputation over the years as Nelson’s career develops. The energy and intensity of ‘Wasted’, Promise Of The Real’s second album from 2012, demonstrated their growth as a live band and captured a loose ‘Exile On Main Street’ kind of vibe that was very appealing. There hasn’t been another record from Lukas and his band since then, though they’ve spent a lot of time in the studio at various times over the past few years. Some official bootleg recordings came out of one of the recording sessions, and it was surprising to hear how sweet the band sounded when they played acoustically.
Last year, I was invited to come down to hear Promise Of The Real recording their new album iat an old house in Topanga Canyon that the band had rented. I would have loved to have made the trip, but for a lot of reasons it didn’t work out, but when I next talked with Lukas and asked him what I’d missed out on, he laughed. “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t come visit because we didn’t end up using those recordings.” Next, a studio was set up in an old house in San Francisco where they took a second shot at getting their new songs down. ” The house we recorded them in was a very difficult place.’ When I asked him what he meant, he told me that the house was haunted, and that from the day they moved in, they knew something wasn’t normal. Maybe, the ghosts of the prior occupants didn’t like music, and weren’t going to tolerate a rock band turning it up to eleven in their former living room. “But, when we were working, it was all magic, and I actually felt like the spirits were helping.” Still, it wasn’t long before doors started moving and opening on their own, but by the time everyone decided it was time to leave for higher ground, they’d gotten the recordings they were after. After three years, and several stops and starts, the followup recording to ‘Wasted’ has been completed and they’ve got a studio album together that they hope captures and embraces everything that is so compelling about Promise Of The Real’s live show.
I caught up with Lukas and his band mates, Tato Melgar, Corey McCormick and Anthony Logerfo at the Hard Rock Theatre in a Vancouver suburb last Saturday afternoon before the first date of a Canadian tour that will take them through almost every town and outpost across the prairies until they join up with Neil Young in Edmonton on July 3rd to begin their tour in support of ‘the Monsanto years’, Young’s new studio collaboration with Lukas and Promise Of The Real.
A lot of people that listen to Lukas Nelson quite naturally expect to hear Willie Nelson’s sound echoing somewhere in the music. And, if you listen carefully, it does. But, as much as Lukas has obviously been inspired by his father’s musical aesthetics, I think the senior Nelson’s greatest influence has been in the formation of his son’s character. Every time I meet him, I am impressed with Lukas’ presence and ability to focus. Working so hard and meeting so many people, he never fails to listen to what they say or answer their questions with a grace that implies humility and respect. I have not met many people who have that kind of resilience and composure – in any line of work or creative endeavour. Looking around the green room of the Hard Rock with its generic furniture and nondescript surroundings, I wondered how many hundreds of hours a year Lukas, Anthony, Tato and Corey spend in rooms just like this waiting to play. I could see how spending too much time in places like this could drive a person crazy or into the depths of loneliness, but even though I’m sure none of those feelings have been lost on Nelson’s band, I was struck by how they seemed to have transcended their surroundings and are able to create a warm and homelike environment no matter where they find themselves. Appearances can be deceiving, but the overall vibe Lukas and his friends project is one of warmth, intimacy and acceptance. Lifting himself up from the couch he was sprawled on, Anthony mentioned a few things from a conversation we’d had years ago while Corey talked about a favourite Vancouver venue and all of the artists he’d played with there. We’d been talking for about half an hour when all of a sudden something shifted and Lukas got really quiet. He looked up at me with a far off glint in his eye and said, ‘We played a game of golf today. I can’t remember the name of the course, but as we were driving there I noticed that it was located right at the corner of Austin and Nelson.’ I looked at him as he repeated ‘Austin and Nelson.’ ‘Sounds like a good sign for tonight’s show. I guess it proves that you’re at home everywhere.’ I couldn’t think of what else to say. Lukas was still reflective and I wondered if I had lost the plot somewhere. I wondered if travelling as much as he does, he ever gets homesick or if he’s simply learned to be at home anywhere in the world. But, these were questions for another day. A knock came on the door. Ten minutes to show time. The rest of band filed out to get ready and Lukas and I spent a few minutes talking before we exchanged hugs, agreed to get in touch before he joined up with Neil in Edmonton. I went to find my seat for the show.
What happened next was the best kind of surprise, the kind that only happens when you don’t come loaded with expectations. As I’ve already said, I’ve always enjoyed going to see Promise Of The Real live, but in the three years that had passed since I last heard them in concert, something hasdefinitely shifted. They’ve gone from being a very credible bar band with a lot of spirit and potential and morphed into one of the greatest psychedelic, bluesy jam bands that I’ve ever heard. Promise Of The Real are still the same energetic band who give their all every time they get on stage, but in the past few years they’ve come to learn that sometimes less is more. Their sound is full and rich, steamy and intense, but they’re playing fewer notes than they did in the past. Textures linger longer, percussion and drums extend the spaces in the sound that were previously crammed and closely tied to Nelson’s electric string excursions. Essentially, as good as the rest of the band was, in the past, it was Lukas who carried the show, front and centre, back flipping and playing the guitar with his teeth. It was an impressive if overwhelming experience that has since expanded to allow the rest of the band to have a greater influence in the shaping of the soundscapes. Even though he plays fewer notes than in the past, Nelson’s guitar playing has improved by leaps and bounds since I last heard him as he’s learned to linger over and suggest notes rather than playing the Hell out of them. Promise Of The Real has become – like the Grateful Dead at their peak – a band that runs and relies on intuition. As I listened to them effortlessly weaving in and out of melodies, finishing and decorating each other’s phrases and solos, I was reminded of peak Santana, Miles Davis at the Fillmore and Creedence Clearwater if they’d taken more acid out in the swamp. What I had thought would have been simply a pleasant, enjoyable concert turned out to be one of the most musically engaging and rewarding nights of live music I’ve heard this year. Songs like ‘Don’t Take Me Back’ and ‘Wasted’ off of the band’s second CD have grown to become massive jam excursions that were only hinted at in their studio versions. They capped off their forty-five minute set with a very slinky and convincing cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes’ that got people out of their seats and onto the theatre’s tiny dance floor.
As I left the concert, I overheard a lot of people saying that they had come to the show with no expectations and were gradually won over – song by song – to the music that Lukas Nelson and Promise Of The Real played for them. A lot of people expressed surprise at how well they played with comments like ‘He’s actually got a lot of talent! He’s not just riding on his dad’s braids to stardom.’ Even though most of the drifting bits of conversation I heard were positive, they reminded me that Lukas Nelson’s is not necessarily an easy ride. He’s got a lot to prove, and the way he’s chosen to do it, touring town by town, night after night, has really started to pay off. Lukas and company have earned every bit of their reputation, and hopefully the combination of a high profile tour with Neil Young and their collaborative album ‘the Monsanto years’ along with Promise Of The Real’s long awaited new CD will give Lukas Nelson and Promise Of The Real the respect and attention they deserve.
This posting also appears in a slightly different form at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.ca