Making a Case for Love – Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s debut
Review by Doug Heselgrave
We’re not living in a pure world. Sincerity is only appreciated from afar – the closer it gets, the more uncomfortable we become. Moves are plotted in advance as careers in music are created by committees in the boardroom. Has there ever been a time when we were more burdened by conformity and cynicism?
If this is true, the mere existence of Lukas Nelson should make us all shift uncomfortably in our seats. Listen just once to his debut and it’s obvious that he didn’t get the memo – that he dropped out of music school before he took the rock and roll futures course. After all, what right does a person who is so young have being so free, so spontaneous and so unguarded in his approach to what he sings and plays?
To say that I haven’t met or heard many people like Lukas Nelson in the twenty years I’ve been writing about music would be an understatement. This isn’t to suggest that Nelson has achieved perfection, scaled the highest peak and that every note that he plays on his guitar and every word he sings is groundbreaking and is going to set the world on fire. It’s not. Lukas Nelson is not quite there yet, though his debut album – the aptly titled ‘Promise of the Real’ – demonstrates that the signs are all pointing in that direction.
The son of one of the most loved figures in popular music, Lukas certainly could have taken the easy way out by playing in his dad’s band while carving out his own career in the outlaw country genre. He’s not doing that – though the love and respect Nelson has for his father are apparent when one meets him, and are confirmed by the way he looks right into your eyes with his clear headed, direct gaze when he speaks. Lukas’ music – like his father’s – is buoyed by an almost imperceptible quality of sincerity that permeates everything he plays. That’s because at the age of 21, Lukas Nelson has figured out where his passions are, and he’s made the decision to follow those passions to see where they lead. The love for the journey he’s embarked upon is apparent; spend five minutes in Lukas’ company and it’s obvious that he truly lives and breathes music and is enamoured with the myriad possibilities that are stretched out before him. There’s nothing constructed or artificial about his choices. With Lukas Nelson, what you see is truly what you get. The music that is created while following this path may not be perfect every time, but it’s just as real as the name of the band and his album suggest.
Like all young artists, Lukas Nelson is working his way through his influences. Listening to the songs on ‘Promise of the Real’, one can hear him taking in sounds, ruminating upon them, acquiring and discarding as he continues searching. Everything is fair game and grist for the mill as he continues on his way to creating a sound that is his own.
‘Four Letter Word’, the song that opens ‘Promise of the Real’ comes storming out of the gates with a Dylan-in-66 amphetamine driven ‘Tombstone Blues’ groove that cuts through the crap right away and lets everybody know that Lukas is nothing if not serious about what he’s got on offer here. ‘Peaceful Solution’ and ‘Toppers’ showcase Nelson’s increasingly confident vocals as they ride over guitar melodies and leads that reveal the unique voice he’s cultivated on his instrument. Time spent touring with BB King obviously paid off as Nelson effortlessly digs in deep to make his guitar cry, wail, cajole and testify right along with the pleading, hurting nature of many of the lyrics on this album.
It takes a lot of balls in 2011 to cover a Jimi Hendrix song and pull it off, and Nelson does just that with a truly psychedelic meditative take on the obscure Pali Gap/Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) He plays beautifully throughout as the subtlety and nuance he’s acquired in the last year or so effectively serve the meandering course of the song. A scorching version of Neil Young’s LA that has become a mainstay in his live concerts is also captured for posterity here.
As enjoyable as the cover versions are, the real stories in Nelson’s debut are told through his original songs. While Lukas may not yet have developed the economy and haiku like focus of his father’s lyrics or the breadth of Dylan’s epic stories, there’s nothing cut and paste about anything he sings here. The songs bravely reflect the highs and lows of a young man coming of age as the lyrics unabashedly explore what he’s feeling and experiencing at any particular moment. With this in mind, I doubt that I’ll hear songs better than “Sound of Your Memory” and “Don’t Lose Your Mind” anywhere in 2011. Blessed with raw lyrics, piercing guitar lines and melodies that rival the best of his father’s, I’ve played each of these tunes repeatedly and even after several days rotation they continue to weave a spell, reflecting a pure experience of life in all of its joys and sorrows.
Special mention must be made of the other musicians in Nelson’s band. As his father learned years ago, a singer is only as good as the people who are backing him up, and the players Lukas has attracted couldn’t be more suited to the music he plays. John Avila’s intuitive bass lines fluidly ride the bottom end and hold things together by allowing lots of room for Tato Melgar’s seductive percussions and Anthony Logerfo’s powerhouse drumming to create sonic sculptures around the backbeat. Reminiscent of Hendrix’s last great outfit, The Band of Gypsies, one can only hope these musicians are around for the long run.
Lukas Nelson is a restless spirit who always has many songs on the go. Perhaps years from now, he’ll look back on this album with a sense of dissatisfaction, rueing all of the things he would have done differently. But, I don’t think so. Everything in his music suggests that he’s a guy who doesn’t look back and keeps his gaze firmly fixed on where he’s going and not where he’s just been. Lukas Nelson is an artist who’s not going to go away any time soon, and years from now we’ll count ourselves as having been lucky for the chance we had to hear this music sung and played when it was fresh and these songs were new.
This is real soul music. Check it out.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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