Lukas Nelson hits the road with Neil Young
By Beth Peerless
Talking with Lukas Nelson over the phone is hardly any different than sitting next to him at the bar having a drink. As he relaxed in the afternoon at Mercede’s Grill in Marina del Rey with a Bloody Mary in hand, the part-time Venice resident kindly shared more than a few interesting aspects of what it’s like to be country music icon Willie Nelson’s son and the influence it’s had on his own career in music.
Performing Wednesday at The Forum with his band Promise of the Read backing Neil Young, 26-year-old Nelson is in many ways a chip off the ol’ block. His father has been a strong influence on him since he was young and has been incredibly supportive of his choice of career. The same goes for his brother Micah Nelson, with the Venice-based band Insects vs. Robots. The siblings often share the stage with their father, as well as with other music icons such as Young and Bob Weir. Clearly it doesn’t suck to be Willie’s son.
“When I was a young kid, I picked up the guitar and started playing around,” Lukas Nelson said about his early efforts in music. “Dad showed me a few chords. I asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he said it would make him very happy if I learned how to play the guitar. So I went and learned how to play the guitar. It was my way of getting closer to him and for him to be proud of me. Eventually I fell in love with it on my own, and fell in love with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. And then my tastes have broadened into so many types of music. That’s how I got started.”
Those broad tastes are reflected in his music, which ranges between straight-out rock ’n’ roll to sensitive ballads, and is not necessarily painted with country music brush strokes. In addition to Young and Weir, Nelson cites classic counter-cultural rockers like the Rolling Stones, as well as country-flavored roots artists like J.J. Cale and The Band, as important influences.
“I just like music — in my eyes, music that’s done authentically,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if the instrument is electronic or not. What matters is passion and the energy put into whatever it is they’re doing. And the ability to balance their own personal artistic expression that people can relate to — to be able to have this artistic expression and still make an impact on my heart and my mind and my ear. That’s a perfect balance to me, no matter what kind of art or what genre of music. You just have to seek them out.”
Nelson is first and foremost a guitarist, although he does also play piano and bass. “I can mess around on the harmonica, and I’m an alright drummer. I’m not bad. I don’t really spend that much time drumming, but I’m getting there,” he said.
Nelson is the primary songwriter in his four-piece band, with drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick and percussionist Tato Melgar. In his open manner, he shared his process for crafting the tunes on several recordings, the most recent a teaser six-song EP that’s the introduction to his Bootleg project, “Realer Bootlegs Vol. 1.”
“I kinda repeat what comes in my head,” he said. “A lot of the time it has to do with what I’ve listened to in the last six months. Whatever comes out is usually reflective of what’s been around me. That’s the main way I write. I let it come to me. … I don’t think it comes from anything else other than absorption. You’re absorbing what’s around you, and I listen to a lot of different styles of music. I’ve never thought to limit myself in style of music or genre of music. Probably because my dad is so open to his acceptance of all different types of music. I learned that from him, I guess.”
Nelson’s schedule is pretty hectic these days, having juggled a few gigs with his band in early summer before heading out on the road with Young —“Uncle Neil,” Nelson calls him on social media — in support of Young’s latest recording, “The Monsanto Years.”
“There’s a lot of backlash it seems right now where people are saying that he’s anti-science and he’s just a hippie and doesn’t know anything,” Nelson said about the material he performs on the album and on tour. “I stand behind what he says. Because if you really listen to what he’s saying, what he’s being criticized for isn’t what he’s saying. GMOs may be bad or good, but we deserve to know. We have the right to know what’s put in our food. Companies like Monsanto are deliberately trying to prevent us from having that right by suing states that try to label their food either GMO or not GMO. To me, if you believe your product isn’t dangerous, then you won’t mind that people can decide for themselves.”
Brother Micah, on guitar, has joined Promise of the Real as Young’s backing band for this tour, providing opportunities for Young and both the Nelsons to dig into their respective instruments to trade off licks and provide exciting interplay on a number of songs. Following a show in Milwaukee, a reviewer commented that “they may very well be the most sympathetic and versatile band Young has ever shared a stage with.” After Wednesday’s gig at The Forum, Promise of the Real plays another scheduled tour stop with Young on Oct. 17 at U.C. Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, followed by the annual Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View.
Coincidentally, the name Promise of the Real was culled eight years ago from one of Young’s songs, “Walk On” (“Some get stoned / some get strange / But sooner or later / it all gets real”) and Nelson said he’s stoked that now he’s getting to play with him.
“And so it’s kind of full circle,” Nelson said.
“We would spend hours listening to Neil and just jamming along with it on bongos and acoustic guitar or whatever, and that was it. We just kind of started around that,” he explains in a video posted to the band’s website.
When asked where it is he calls home, he said, “I don’t really consider anywhere home. I’m spending a lot of time in Hawaii. Grew up there and went to high school there. I was born in Austin, Texas. I spend a lot of time in L.A. in Venice Beach, which is where I am now. My parents have a home here. I grew up going back and forth, between just the open road, L.A., Maui and Austin.”
Yep, life as a Nelson has its perks, and it’s not lost on the young man who takes his work seriously. He’s got his eyes on the kind of career his father has enjoyed, making the road his home and going the long haul.
Are there drawbacks, or is it really all good?
“Oh absolutely. In every way possible,” he said without hesitation. “I don’t feel like there are any negatives to it. I feel blessed to be living the life I am. So many other people don’t have a sliver of what I have. I’m just trying to enjoy it for those people and appreciate it. Because I know if I was in another position, I’d be having to work really hard. I’ve gotten a lot of breaks in the music business because of my dad. It’s great. I feel that I’m very lucky. A lot of musicians who are way more talented don’t get the same kind of support. I’ve nothing to complain about.”
Sometime in the fall, Nelson will release a full-length recording that he and his band already have in the can, recorded in San Francisco at the William Westerfeld mansion, a historic monument across the street from Alamo Square.
“We pulled all the equipment from my friend’s place in Austin, we shipped it out and set up the studio in this old mansion where Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and a lot of people hung out, at Fulton and Scott.”
That sure must have been cool, connecting with that history. That’s not something just any musician can pull off.
“Oh totally, and the record really reflects that, the vibe,” he said. “So I’m really looking forward to putting it out. It’s called ‘Something Real.’”
And the circle remains unbroken.
Neil Young and Promise of the Real play a 7:30 p.m. show on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. Tickets start at $29.50. Call (310) 330-7300 or visit fabulousforum.com.
An earlier version of this story first appeared in the Monterey Herald.