LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Lukas Nelson’s surname may well have opened a door or two for him in the entertainment business, but rest assured that the Hawaiian-reared son of the most iconic living legend in American music has a lot more going for him than just famous family ties and possibly the world’s best weed connection. It was just shy of a decade ago that Nelson introduced his band Promise of the Real, and that’s the name that arguably defines him best — conveying a determined sense of purpose rooted in the awareness that, far from guaranteeing a free ride or genetic inheritance of genius, being the offspring of a very successful artistic so-and-so has only ever meant that the onus was on him to prove himself a legit contender. And he very much has, both as a fine songwriter in his own right and as a particularly mean guitar player — good enough, at the very least, to lead his band into the thick of a psychedelic jam with rock star swagger to spare, confidently hold his own in the eye of a feedback-spitting hurricane with Neil Young, and yes, even keep up with his old man Willie (and Trigger, too) onstage playing everything from gypsy country to soulful Texas blues. Most impressive of all, though, is his voice, similar in nasal pitch to his father’s but gilded with a rusty metallic finish that cuts through every line he sings like a jagged razor. It’s a remarkably distinctive instrument that made his goose-bump raising cover of John Phillips’ “San Francisco” one of the most compelling tracks I heard all last year, right alongside his equally beautiful original, “Forget About Georgia.”
Both of those songs were standouts on Nelson and his band’s last album, 2016’s Something Real, and a fresh recording of “Forget About Georgia” graces this year’s model, too. So does another song from Something Real, “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” along with an updated crack at “Four Letter Word,” last heard on the band’s 2010 full-length debut, Promise of the Real (not to be confused with the equally eponymous title of this one, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real). That’s admittedly a lot of double dipping for a fourth album, albeit not unheard of for an artist’s major-label debut — not to mention the fact that it’s also sort of an old family tradition that Willie and other first-generation outlaws (namely Billy Joe Shaver) have practiced for decades. Regardless, all three of the older songs fit in seamlessly on the new album and if anything sound even better than the earlier takes, with the opening “Set Me Down on a Cloud” and “Georgia” both nearly doubled in length to allow the band ample space for jammy but tasteful extended instrumental legroom. Nelson may write and sing all of the songs and play all of the guitars on the album (save for a cameo by his dad and Trigger on one track), but as has always been the case with Promise of the Real, this is very much a full-band endeavor. Nelson, drummer Anthony LeGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, and bassist Corey McCormick have all played hundreds of shows together over the last several years, both on their own and backing Neil Young, and their chemistry is undeniable — as are the vital contributions of new recruits Jesse Siebenberg (steel and Farfisa) and Alberto Bof (piano and organ). Promise of the Real have made good records before, but never one quite this full-color and richly textured.
It’s also hands down their most varied. While earlier efforts leaned heavily on the band’s Santana-esque liquid rhythmic grooves and hybrid hippie/garage rock, country, rootsy folk and more than a little soul are stirred into the mix here to great effect. “Find Yourself,” one of two tracks bolstered by assertive (in a good way) guest vocals by Lady Gaga, packs a Dusty in Memphis-worthy wallop, while the delicately gorgeous “Just Outside of Austin” — featuring instrumental assists from both Willie and sister/aunt Bobbie on piano — is “Gentle on My Mind” with a Texas zip code. The surprise gem though is “Runnin’ Shine,” an atypically bucolic paean to the bootlegger trade that’s as arresting in its unabashed pastoral loveliness as Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” was in its shit-kicking menace. In fact, if Lukas’ dad has another album or 20 of his own still left in him, he really oughta cut that one himself: It’s the kind of song that just might a open a door or two. — RICHARD SKANSE