by: Gary Graff
As Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson grew up with Neil Young around and feeling like “family.”
But he and the other members of his band, including younger brother and fellow guitarist Micah, are still pinching themselves about backing Young on his new politically charged new album, “The Monsanto Years,” and being on the road with the iconoclastic rocker this summer.
“It’s pretty incredible. It’s epic,” Nelson, 26, says by phone from the group’s tour bus. “I feel like there’s a natural flow between us, and that’s really nice. He’s a good friend and we look up to him, and it feels like we’re getting an experience that is beyond rare.”
It also brings things full circle for Nelson and Promise of the Real.
The group actually took its name from a lyric in Young’s song “Walk On.” Nelson met drummer Anthony Logerto at a Young concert during 2008 in Los Angeles and decided to start the group after that.
“I remember seeing (Young) playing there and just wanting to be out on that stage so badly and jamming like that,” Nelson recalls. “We started the band after that, based on our love for Neil. We would just jam Neil Young songs. I was writing a lot and we would play our own material, but Neil was a huge influence as well as my dad, Stevie Ray Vaughan, (Jimi) Hendrix.
“Now here we are, eight years later, still doing it — with Neil.”
Music, of course, was inextricably in Nelson and Micah’s DNA. A Christmas Day baby born in Texas to Nelson and his current wife, Annie, he was raised partly in Hawaii and moved to Los Angeles in 2007 study at Loyola Marymount University. He’d started playing guitar when he was 12, but remembers that “before I started playing music I wanted to be a professional swimmer, and then I got into skateboarding and was pretty good at that — but not good enough. Music just captured me, and I flew away and didn’t think about anything else.”
Promise of the Real has released two albums — 2010’s self-titled debut and 2012’s “Wasted” — as well as an EP, and has recorded a third, “Something Real,” that’s due out later this year. Lukas also played on his father’s 2012 release “Heroes” and frequently plays in his live band. “He’s very good,” Willie Nelson says of his son. “He’s got that young, fresh energy but he knows the tradition, too.”
Lukas, meanwhile, affirms that “any chance I get, I love being with my dad.”
“That’s the greatest feeling in the world, being up there with him. There’s nothing comparable to that — even being out here with Neil, which is the greatest experience in my life, in some ways. But it’s just a different feeling being up there with dad and supporting him.”
Promise of the Real’s connection with Young started with a impromptu performance with Lukas and Micah at last September’s Farm Aid concert. Young tapped the full band shortly after that to play with him at the Harvest Of Hope concert in Nebraska protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Backing Young at his annual Bridge School Benefit concerts the next month in California locked in the relationship, and then Lukas received an email from Young saying, “‘I got some songs. Do you want to go in the studio?’ We said ‘sure,’ so we spent six weeks doing that, and it came out great.”
Nelson says he and Promise of the Real are in total sympathy with the “Monsanto Years” slams against corporate greed, which single out Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Safeway and, of course, the Monsanto agrochemical company, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court and Citizens United. But they’ve also been happy hitting the road and dipping deep into Young’s catalog, playing rarities such as “Hold Back the Tears” and “Out in the Wasteland” as well as Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying On the Ground is Wrong.”
All told, Nelson figures Promise of the Real learned nearly 80 of Young’s songs, rehearsing on its own for a solid week and a half before it even got in a room with Young.
“It’s amazing to be playing these older tunes and stuff he hasn’t done in years,” Nelson notes. “We all have a lot of reverence for Neil and are just in general awe. But I feel like the vibe out here is just perfect.
“They’re Neil’s tunes. He wrote them all. We’re going out there and just trying to be the best supporting band we can be. It’s a really great thing for us. We’re learning so much. We’re just trying to absorb all the knowledge that we can, and hopefully we’ll get to do it again.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Graff is a longtime Detroit-area music critic and rock and roll reporter. Reach the author at email@example.com or follow Gary on Twitter: @GraffonMusic.