The concert season at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion kicks off Saturday, May 28, with the Country Throwdown, a massive show with more than 23 performers playing out across three different stages. Twenty-two-year-old Lukas Nelson appears on two of them, doing a late afternoon set with his band Promise of the Real, and later closing the night on rhythm guitar alongside headliner Willie Nelson, who happens to be his father.
Having a famous dad hasn’t made things easy for Lukas Nelson. From his days as a toddler tagging along on Willie’s many tours, the young Nelson always knew he was bound for the music business. Eventually, he quit college to play, reportedly much to his parents’ consternation. However, before he was ready to headline big L.A. clubs like the Viper Room and the Troubadour, Nelson busked for tips at places like Venice Beach Boardwalk and lived out of his car.
But he never doubted his decision.
“I would take requests and play all night and I never went to class and eventually just dropped out,” he said recently by telephone before a show in Houston, Texas. “It was something I’ve always known I could do and wanted to do … I had to just get out of my own way. I never had any fear about anything.”
His struggles since forming Promise of the Real two years ago would resonate with most young musicians. Nelson and his band mates — percussionist Tato Melgar, drummer Anthony Logerfo and bass player John Avila — toured the country in a van while living hand to mouth, often jacking electricity and hoarding backstage food for non-show days.
One artist they opened for, B.B. King, referred to this scrappy practice as “carrying the stick.”
“It’s doing what you can to survive when you don’t have the means to do it with more class,” says Nelson.
“That’s carrying the stick.”
Moving beyond those hardscrabble beginnings, last year the band bought Papa Willie’s famous Honeysuckle Rose and turned it into a rolling home. “I live on the road now in my tour bus, just kind of riding down the road,” Nelson says.
Though he’s always been in his father’s band, Nelson’s focus now is on Promise of the Real. The Country Throwdown tour covers 23 cities in a little over a month, but that’s just a fraction of the 270 gigs POTR has booked over the course of 2011.
“I’m all in,” says Nelson. “All my cards are showing.”
Nelson has the same reedy warble in his voice as well as the grip-and-fire picking style of his father, but he’s charting his own course musically. On “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” a track from the band’s eponymous debut disc, he counsels, “work hard for life, don’t act like you deserve it.” Willie joins on vocals for a pair of songs and adds brilliant acoustic accompaniment to one of the album’s highlights, “All the Pretty Horses.” There’s also a rocking cover of dad’s “Peaceful Solution.”
But the majority of the record rocks, recalling Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan on “Four Letter Word” and Stevie Ray Vaughn on several tracks, and includes covers of Jimi Hendrix and a spot-on take of Neil Young’s “L.A.”
Nelson strived to emulate Hendrix and Vaughn’s styles when he learned to play guitar at age 12 as a birthday present for his father. “I wanted to be Stevie Ray,” he says. “That is what spoke to me for the first six or seven years of playing guitar. I have forced myself to listen to other people since then … Django Reinhardt, Mike Bloomfield, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson, George Harrison — now I have a lot of different styles.”
With both a drummer and percussionist, a prominent rhythmic element comes through in the Promise of the Real sound, particularly on songs like “Start to Go” and the politically charged “Topper.”
“I grew up around Tato — he’s from Argentina,” says Nelson. “I love rhythm and I love music that makes people dance, so it seems natural for me to have a lot of percussion.”
The elder Nelson never tried to steer Lukas in any particular musical direction. Unlike Rosanne Cash, who received an essential list of songs from her father Johnny Cash (a member with Willie in the country supergroup The Highwaymen), Lukas didn’t get a list to work from. “I’ve played in his band since I was very young and we just jam together,” he says. “Our relationship is more like he inspires me in so many ways but I just try to follow him by example … he is open and receptive to all kinds of music.”
This guides the young singer/guitarist along his own path.
“I’m not trying to follow a specific genre. I don’t really care about that,” Nelson says. “I just want to play.”