Since forming 10 years ago, the buzz surrounding Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real has been quietly intensifying. During that time, the 28-year old singer/songwriter/guitarist and his bandmates have played hundreds of shows and major festivals all over the world and built a devoted underground following. Lukas’ profile continued to rise when he contributed three songs and heavenly vocals to his dad Willie Nelson’s 2012 album, Heroes, their voices blending with potent DNA. Then two years later, life took another turn skyward when Neil Young decided to make Promise of the Real his touring and studio band. Young has guided the grateful young musicians ever since as they’ve backed the legend on tour around the world and on his two most recent albums.
These experiences were undoubtedly invaluable, but none of what has come before will prepare you for the cosmic country soul of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, the band’s new, self-titled album, a mesmerizing, emotionally genuine, endlessly rewarding work set for release on Fantasy Records. From the epic “Set Me Down on a Cloud” to the climactic “If I Started Over,” the album delivers one sublime song and inspired performance after another.
“I knew I had a lot of good songs that transcended the cultural boundaries between rock & roll and country,” Lukas says of his vision for the album. “I wanted to get the songs as pure as they could be. We owe a lot to Neil; we made this record after coming off the road with him for two years. Neil’s been mentoring us, and we’ve been absorbing that energy, and I think it shows. We got acclimated to a different level of artistic expression. We’ve grown.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, produced by song-shaping specialist John Alagia (numerous Dave Matthews Band LPs, John Mayer’s Room for Squares) was recorded at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Promise of the Real’s six-piece line-up now includes longtime bandmates Tato Melgar (percussion), Anthony LoGerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass, vocals) along with new members Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals) and Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3). Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta (who convincingly plays the role of Bonnie to Lukas’ Delaney) added her signature vocals to the rousing “Carolina” and “Find Yourself,” while Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig of the Brooklyn-based indie-pop duo Lucius provide backing vocals on five of the 12 tracks, evoking Exile on Main St.’s ecstatic, gospel-rooted harmonies.
The band’s many influences can be discerned in the opening track, “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” a soulful country rocker that features Lucius’ spiritual vocals and an extended solo underscores Lukas’ tasteful guitar virtuosity.
The lilting, pastoral “Just Outside of Austin” features a guitar solo from Willie, while Lukas’ 86-year-old Aunt Bobbi plays piano. “It’s a love letter to Austin, something like Roger Miller or Glen Campbell would write,” he said.
“Runnin’ Shine,” one of the album’s first-person character studies, is written from the perspective of a young moonshiner trying to outsmart the law while hurtling along Appalachian back roads in a souped-up car loaded with homemade booze. “Perspective is huge,” says Lukas. “If you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and you can relate to them, it’s really hard to hate them, even if you don’t agree with how they live their life.”
Two of the album’s most breathtaking songs, “Find Yourself” and “Forget About Georgia,” vividly retrace the turbulent final stages and bittersweet aftermath of the same doomed love affair. “After the relationship ended, I had to play Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” every night when I was on the road with my dad, which made it literally impossible to forget about her.” Introduced by a wistful four-note guitar lick that reoccurs throughout the arrangement, “Forget About Georgia” unfolds to a “Layla”-like outpouring of romantic yearning, as the band stretches out behind Lukas’ emotional guitar soloing. Not surprisingly, it’s Young’s favorite song on the album.
Inspired by the big ballads of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, Lukas delivers a full-throttle vocal on the closing track, “If I Started Over,” at once a cosmic rumination and a rapturous expression of romantic devotion. “The song is asking, what if, after we die, we just come back? What if we have to do the same dream again until we learn the right lessons?
A seasoned veteran at 28, Austin-born Lukas grew up in Maui, while spending much of his time during school breaks in his hometown and on the road with his dad. “I had a lot of passions growing up,” he says. “I played soccer, I was on the swim team, living a Maui lifestyle, surfing and skateboarding. I also loved singing and wrote my first song when I was 11. I became obsessed with guitar, playing eight to 10 hours a day. I knew what I wanted to do from a super-young age, and I made my life about it.” He and his brother Micah played in bands together in high school, and they struck up a friendship with Uruguay-born Tato Melgar, a skilled musician then making his living as a landscaper, who taught the brothers the basics of drumming.
In 2007, Lukas headed to the mainland to attend L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University. A year later, after meeting LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert, he dropped out of school and started a band with LoGerfo, Melgar and original bassist Merlyn Kelly; he named it Promise of the Real, referencing a line in Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “Sooner or later it all gets real.” When McCormick joined two years later on bass, the POTR lineup was set. The band woodshedded; averaging more than 200 shows a year. Drawing on Lukas’ lineage as well surrogate uncles like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and the classic rock and roll of J.J. Cale, The Band, Clapton era Delaney and Bonnie and of course mentor Neil Young, they began to develop their own distinctive style of American music.
Young befriended the band after checking them out at Farm Aid several years back. “Neil got in touch after that, and we started talking by email,” Lukas recounts. “Eventually, he asked us to record with him. So we recorded The Monsanto Years and played some shows together, and we fell in love with each other musically, one thing led to another and we became Neil’s band.
“What’s happened with us feels similar to the career trajectory of The Band,” he continues. “They were already a great band when they started working with Dylan, who lifted them up, which is similar to what Neil’s done for us. He’s also given people a chance to hear what we’re doing and what our own songs have to offer. Then we played the Desert Trip with Neil, along with Paul McCartney, the Stones, the Who and Dylan. That was incredible.”
Those two weekends in Indio last October turned out to be extremely fortuitous. “We met Lucius at Desert Trip,” says Lukas. “They were playing with Roger Waters—and still are. Then they came to the Bridge School Benefit, where we really got to know them. I love Jess and Holly—they really enhance the record.”
Bradley Cooper also saw Lukas play at Desert Trip, and right afterward contacted a mutual friend about helping him on the new film he’s directing and starring in, a remake of A Star is Born. “At first I was just helping him out, and then I started writing with Stefani (Lady Gaga), who’s in the movie. We connected and she and I became really close. I got very involved in this film and ended up bringing the band into it as well.”
Coming of age in a celebrated musical family, Lukas Nelson learned early on that true originality is hard won, never given. Doubtlessly blessed with a measure of musical ability, it’s clear that his natural gifts have been honed by a singular devotion to craft and a deep appreciation for the sacrifice a creative life requires. Elated by the way things have come together so beautifully, Lukas is gratified that POTR have earned this moment and seized the opportunities that have led to this album—all perfectly capturing what he’d heard in his head 18 months earlier.
“It’s just amazing how things have flowed,” Lukas marvels. “It feels divine in a way.”