photo: Rich Fury
by: Pat Muir
WHAT: Chinook Fest
WHEN: Friday through Sunday
WHERE: Jim Sprick Community Park, 13680 State Route 410 outside of Naches
TICKETS: $40 Friday, $60 Saturday, $20 Sunday; $95 weekend pass; $175 VIP weekend pass
Lukas Nelson started playing guitar to connect with his father, Willie, but it didn’t take long for the younger Nelson to establish himself as a creative voice distinct from that of the country music legend.
Part of that was just growing up in a different era under different circumstances. Willie was born during the Great Depression and grew up in Texas. Lukas, whose band, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, will play Saturday night as the headliner of this year’s Chinook Fest, was born in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Hawaii. His musical sensibility was forged by a childhood spent listening to acts like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Stevie Ray Vaughan as much as it was by his father’s country music. There are other influences at play, too, from classic soul to contemporary hip-hop.
All of that said, the 26-year-old does kind of sound like his father. A bit louder, maybe. And definitely bluesier. But that Willie Nelson voice and style is plainly mixed in there with all of the other influences. People comment on it all the time, the younger Nelson said in a phone interview this week.
And you know what? He’s OK with that.
“I’m proud of who my dad is,” Nelson said. “And being compared with him is great. I think I’m comfortable enough in what I do that I don’t mind being compared to him. He’s an incredible person, and he’s an incredible musician.”
His son ain’t bad, either. I mean, yeah, he had some breaks early on because of who his father is — opportunities Lukas Nelson got that Lukas Bardkowski wouldn’t have — but that wouldn’t mean much without the talent to take advantage of them.
You don’t, after all, get hired to be Neil Young’s band in the studio and on tour just because he’s friends with your dad. Promise of the Real got that gig, playing on Young’s latest, “The Monsanto Years,” and accompanying him on tour, because they’re a solid, versatile band.
“I’ve learned immensely from him,” Nelson said of Young. “He’s a mentor to me. … I think he sees potential in us as young musicians.”
Nelson’s work with his own band draws on the rural-rock aesthetic that artists such as Young and The Band invented. It’s a perfect fit for Chinook Fest, which in its fourth year has proven to be a showcase for bands that combine Americana with classic rock.
“I grew up on Pearl Jam and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, The Beatles and The Beach Boys,” Nelson said. “Roy Orbison. Anything you can think of. All the greats. Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix. All the blues guys, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
The result is something Promise of the Real calls “cowboy hippie surf rock,” which is as good a description as any. It has evolved over the years from the raw sound on the band’s eponymous 2010 debut album and the 2012 follow-up “Wasted” to something more thoughtful on the band’s six-song EP “Realer Bootlegs Vol. 1” released this year.
One of those songs in particular, a track called “For Me,” displays a level of vocal restraint and control that Nelson was unable or unwilling to reach earlier in his career. It’s an atmospheric slow-burn with evocative lyrics that demand close listening while leaving room for interpretation.
“For Me” and the other songs on “Realer Bootlegs” bode well for the band’s upcoming full-length album, recorded last year and set for release in January or February.
“I wouldn’t say that I like the newer songs more,” Nelson said (after I told him I like the newer songs more). “But I would say some of them are more poignant now.”
And he’s right. They’re more mature. The band’s early stuff is great. It’s classic rock on the records, and pure energy on the stage. But the newer songs display a breakthrough level of songcraft. They’re personal and universal at once, influenced by Nelson’s surroundings and his background, but very much his own.
“It’s important to just allow yourself to let the song come to you and not force it,” he said.
All of which can be summed up by a dream he had as a child.
“I was standing on a stage in front of, like, millions of people,” Nelson said. “And I was terrified. I kind of shrunk my consciousness into my chest. I hid there. But then I sang from there. I sang through my heart. And I became a performer.”