On Friday evening, Lukas Nelson will perform before a national TV audience with his band, Promise of the Real, on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." They'll play "Four Letter Word," the first track from the band's recently released, self-titled debut album.
Sounding like a lost track from Bob Dylan's seminal "Highway 61," "Four Letter Word" spotlights an exceptionally talented young musician who has absorbed influences from some of the greatest artists of our time.
"A lot of my music is inspired by Dylan," Lukas explains. "I love Dylan and Neil Young. I've played with Dylan a couple of times at shows we did with my dad and him. He would invite me up to play guitar. At one point he was letting go of one his guitar players and needed another one, and he asked me. I was just so busy at the time, I couldn't. I think I made the right decision in that I'm focusing on my own music right now."
‘Riding on the trail that my father left me, A pathway to heaven ’neath a wandering tree. I’m coming back home.’
— from “All the Pretty Horses” by Lukas Nelson
A son of country legend Willie Nelson, Lukas, who just turned 22 on Christmas Day, has been steadily honing his craft over the years, and now commands the stage often amazing audiences with his passionate delivery and scorching guitar playing.
"Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real got a prime slot, likely thanks to Lukas' dad, Willie, but the group's gritty blues rock set was one of the day's liveliest, with Lukas bouncing around barefoot on stage during 'Hoochie Coochie Man,' and playing a fiery guitar solo - with his teeth," raved a USA Today review of the band's performance at the Farm Aid festival in October.
"It's a gimmick, but it's fun," he says about his Hendrix-inspired technique, while grinning and displaying a cracked tooth. "I love to do it. I can see why Jimi did it."
Summing up the album as "a kind of a neo-hippie Western," Lukas explains how "Promise of the Real" is a narrative where "every song means something in my life. It's a snapshot of where I was in the last three years."
With Lukas out front, the band features drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick and percussionist Tato Melgar, with the occasional addition of former Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila.
Primarily featuring original songs like a moving tribute to his parents on "Fathers and Mothers" and the country-flavored ballad "Sound of Your Memory" (with Willie harmonizing on both tracks), it includes a few judicious covers such as a rocking cover of his dad's "Peaceful Solution" and a medley of Hendrix's "Pali Gap"/"Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)," where he displays his astonishing guitar prowess.
"Every time I'd drive through Hana, I used to listen to 'Pali Gap,' because it was a Hawaii-inspired song," Lukas says. "He did it around the time of 'Rainbow Bridge.' I felt like it perfectly expressed the energy of the winding road out to Hana. It's like a magical journey through the forest of a psychedelic wonderland. That song was part of my childhood, the feeling of the wonder and mystery of Maui."
Spending most of his life on Maui, Lukas and his brother, Micah, were enveloped in music from their earliest days. His earliest musical memories include "seeing Paul Simon and Ray Charles with my dad as a young kid, and being out on the road with Johnny Cash and The Highwaymen, Waylon Jennings and those guys."
Sometimes on tour with their dad, it was a natural evolution for both sons to begin playing instruments.
"He and Micah fooled around when they were really little," Willie recalls. "I kept drums around and guitars and they'd take them up every now and again. I didn't push it. Micah wound up being the drummer and Lukas took to the guitar."
Around the age of 11, Lukas had asked his dad what he wanted for his birthday. When Willie suggested he'd like him to learn to play guitar, Lukas was hooked.
"He learned hanging around, playing with me," Willie continues, "but he also listened to the really great guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray (Vaughan), and really accomplished a lot. I had Micah and Lukas on stage several times and they were both really good. I knew one day they would be good on their own."
Lukas credits his mom, Annie, with opening his world to the rock guitar gods. "My mom turned me on to to Jimi and Stevie Ray," he notes. "My dad was just an inspiration on his own; he was always an open book. But they were both equally inspirational because I used to listen to the oldies station with my mom - Ritchie Valens and the Four Tops and the Temptations, and the English rock groups like the Beatles - all that I got from my mom. On my dad's side there was country and Dylan and Neil Young. Together they blended really well as an influence for me."
These varied strands permeate "Promise of the Real." On the powerful, evocative closing track, "All the Pretty Horses," one can hear echoes of his father and Neil Young.
"Riding on the trail that my father left me," he sings, "A pathway to heaven 'neath a wandering tree. I'm coming back home."
"That was written for a really good friend," he explains. "We were in love for years and went on a horseback ride. One of my favorite books was 'All the Pretty Horses' by Cormac McCarthy. I did my senior thesis on that book. I just thought about that beautiful ride through the hills of Austin, Texas, with somebody I love and I had that tune in my head. It felt like a culmination of where my life was at then."
And the album includes a cover of Neil Young's apocalyptic "L.A."
"L.A. has been a big part of my life for the past few years," he says. "I went to college to study music there and then dropped out and was a street performer in Venice (Beach) on the Boardwalk for a year. I took the opportunity to learn who I was. I had read 'Siddhartha,' and that was my period of wandering and self-discovery.
"It's hard to see yourself," he continues. "One of my biggest obstacles was being able to look at myself and like what I saw. Once I did, it opened me up musically and creatively. I focused so hard on self-discovery when I was a young kid.
"I was always singing or doing something, but I didn't know I was going to do it as a career. I was very happy when I felt like the universe was allowing me to do that, because I think I would have been down a different road. I wouldn't have had an outlet except for surfing.
"When I started singing, I sucked. People told me that. But I just kept going and knew that if I kept focusing on it and sending good energy to my voice, eventually I would get better. I still think I have room to improve. I'm young; I'm just getting started."
Besides touring with his father, Lukas and his band have opened shows for Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, Toots & The Maytals and blues legend B.B. King.
"We did about 60 shows in the last couple of years with him," Lukas reports. "He's like a grandfather, he's so cool. He is a king. He's the most humble guy, but he has this aura around him that you want to get down on your knees and start bowing."
Absorbing influences from some of the greatest artists performing today, Lukas is blessed to have been raised by one of the coolest, humblest legendary musicians.
"He's a role model in many ways for me," he affirms. "Despite the massive amount of attention he gets, he manages to keep his head and that's rare. I try to follow that."
Later in the year, father and son will release a new duets recording.
"We sang a bunch of old Hank Williams' songs, some standards, some of his and some of mine, and Eddie Vedder's 'Just Breathe,' " says Lukas.
Promise of the Real will be busy in 2011, with 250 shows already booked. They hit the road in January and February opening for Willie.
"We're touring all year," Lukas concludes. "We have Jay Leno and we'll probably do Letterman, the whole TV circuit. I think it's going to be a good year for us.
"I'm happy, I'm doing my own thing, and I'm making a living. I'm not trying to be famous, I'm just trying to make music. When it's all said and done I'd rather, at my death bed, look back and say, wow, what an authentic life, rather than what a successful life."
Two nights of superb musicianship capped the close of 2010, with Barry Flanagan on Dec. 30 at the MACC's "Solo Sessions" series in McCoy Studio Theater and the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band at Mala Wailea on New Year's Eve.
In his first ever "solo" show, Barry led his packed audience on an evolutionary journey from his formative days to contemporary times. With assistance from fellow musicians Hutch Hutchinson, Ron Kualaau, Scotty Rotten and Steve Grimes, he displayed his masterful guitar work on songs by Dylan, Paul McCartney, Warren Zevon and Matisyahu, as well as sampling Hapa territory with "Olinda Road" and "Lei Pikake."
In a surprising moment, Barry announced Nathan Aweau's withdrawal from Hapa, and the launch of a new version this year with Maui's Ron Kualaau.
With Mick Fleetwood at the helm, the Mala Wailea show was a triumphant, musical tour de force featuring the combined talents of Michael McDonald (on an incendiary version of Buddy Miles' "Them Changes") Pat Simmons ("Long Train Running"), Metallica's vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield (on their signature "Enter Sandman"), rocker Alice Cooper closing out the evening with his anthemic "I'm 18" and "School's Out," plus blues guitarist Colin James, Nickelback's bassist Mike Kroeger, and ever humorous emcee Tom Arnold.
With the addition of singers Eric Gilliom and Gretchen Rhodes joining Rick Vito and the Blues Band, other highlights included a knock-out version of Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning" - complete with a roof-raising drum solo.