Live Review

The Real Deal: Lukas Nelson and The Promise Of The Real at The Borderline, London

Lukas Nelson and The Promise Of The Real on October 18, 2017

Photo: Getty Images

Mention Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real over here and the response tends to go along the lines of "Willie Nelson’s son" and "Neil Young’s backing band." POTR's new eponymously titled album is rapidly bringing deserved accolades and the band is now touring Europe in their own right. Ahead of their only UK show, I had a chance to meet Lukas and in a fascinating chat found out a bit about him, his beliefs and influences. 

Lukas Nelson started writing songs aged only ten, learning to play guitar shortly afterwards. That may not appear too unusual given his dad’s occupation and the musical legends he met so young. For example, by the time Lukas was 16 he had been touring with Willie for nearly three years when he found himself jamming with Bob Dylan. So impressed was Dylan that he invited young Lukas to join his tour, ”my mom said no but that invite gave me the confidence to keep trying and playing.” It is that dedication to learning about his craft and constantly improving his abilities that shone through our conversation. Lukas Nelson is the first to acknowledge the support from his dad and others but what impresses most is how he has melded that with his own approach to create his own unique style. 

Who inspired you? “My dad of course, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Dylan, Ray Charles, Glen Campbell and the rock and roll classics. I love the classics. I was obsessed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I didn’t just want to copy him. I wanted to know who he listened to.” How did he learn to play guitar? “That took me back to Hubert Sumlin, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, BB King. Who did Clapton look up to? And Hendrix? That all helped influence my own style.”

There is a deepness of thought in Nelson’s songs, so where does that come from? “I’ve read a lot but essentially I believe everything happens for a reason, a positive could be a negative in disguise and vice versa. I let the universe unfold around me and I write songs that connect with people. Musically I’ve had unique experiences and with my philosophy on life I want to create music that people can relate to, regardless of where they come from.”

Are you political? “Not in the sense of one political party versus another. I’m not trying to change the world but through my peace of mind believing we are all where we’re supposed to be I would always take any opportunity to give of myself or help someone. I’m encouraged by meeting people, I’d say 90% of the people I’ve met have inspired me.”

And this to me summed up Nelson’s philosophy, “I was born blessed, a lot of the children of successful musicians have had problems but it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s how you deal with it.” 

Pushing this slightly I asked Nelson if he saw himself as an outlaw like his dad. “Yes, I connect with people who live their lives authentically, which does not necessarily mean legally. ‘Runnin’ Shine’ from the new album is a good example of such a person.” Pressing a little further on the way music is so obsessively categorised Nelson made himself very clear, “I don’t care how my music is categorised. With respect, this is a problem of you writers’ own making. Remember, every artist is trying to create something different, they don’t want to be categorised because they are trying to do something no one has ever done.” For the record, we agreed amen to that.

This was a fascinating insight into someone who makes clear how grateful he is for all the his provenance has brought him but above all he is his own man who thinks deeply and clearly. For further insight watch his TEDx Talk (below). All that shines through in his music.

I suspect many gathered in this intimate venue last saw POTR backing Neil Young at the cavernous O2. Perhaps they were seeking more of the flowing jamming that so complemented and, in this writer’s opinion, invigorated, Young’s show. Maybe they came having listened to POTR’s recent eponymous release or were just curious to see what Willlie’s son could do. All should have left united and thoroughly satisfied by a powerful set that confirms POTR as band in their own right.

What stood out was the ease with which POTR moved between out and out rocking, jamming in the finest southern traditions and an easier pace that led into the acoustic songs. Lukas Nelson led, but all in the band made a big contribution as he frequently acknowledged. As he told me, this band is more than road tested, and it showed. He also proved his refusal to be categorised, this was a genre defying set.

The opening part was a selection from the new album: "Die Alone," "Four Letter Word," "Fool me Once," "Carolina," and "Runnin’ Shine." There wasn’t much chat, no need really, the music did the talking. Bassist Corey McCormick and drummer Anthony LoGerfo laid down a relentlessly disciplined rhythm section while Jesse Siebenberg, alternating between pedal steel and guitar, added layers that complemented Nelson’s lead. 

In case anyone struggled to recall where they’d last seen POTR, a blistering "Cinammon Girl" was a timely and powerful reminder. The energy of the subsequent jam showed why they had been such as success with Neil Young. "High Times" and "Something Real" felt like an extended session, all featuring sublime solos from Nelson.

The band left Nelson to perform two acoustic gems: "Just Outside of Austin" came from the new album, where his father's influence shines through, and then "Breakdown," a tribute to another source of inspiration, Tom Petty.  

Rejoined by his band Nelson resumed, if anything, intensified the power before the acoustic break finishing with the new album’s "‘Set Me Down On A Cloud." Siebenberg’s opening haunting pedal steel led into Nelson’s chords. In a consistently high quality setlist they left the best until last. They stayed on stage for one encore, "The Awakening," which was unsurpassable in terms of force and strength but throughout the show my deepest impression was how Nelson plays with such a lightness of touch and finesse. 

I look forward to POTR’s return, and, though a great venue tonight, I suspect next time POTR will be somewhere larger.