Saturday, December 24, 2016

Live at the Belly Up: Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (KPBS, c. 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a KPBS presentation on their series Live at the Belly Up — after the legendary live-music venue, the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, which has been operating since 1974 but to which I’ve never gone (nor am I likely to) because of its location and the sheer arduousness of getting there and (worse) getting back at the usual time live-music venues close for the night — featuring a rock band with the rather clunky name “Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real.” The official promo for the show on KPBS’s Web site called them “a torch-bearing band of guitar-barring American rock. Based out of California and Hawaii, this band's music is a diverse collection of sounds and styles with multi-genre influences such as Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, B. B. King and Pearl Jam.” Lukas Nelson himself was interviewed in a few segments that were cut in between his first few songs, and he named Stevie Ray Vaughan as another musician that influenced him (along with such de rigueur rock names as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) — and he certainly knows his way around a guitar even though he’s hardly at either Hendrix’ or Vaughan’s level as a virtuoso. (One can at least hopes he outlasts those two musicians, who’ve become almost as legendary for their early demises as for their playing!)

After the band’s third song another interview cut-in, not with Nelson but with the talent booker for the Belly Up, who mentioned that Lukas Nelson is the son of country music legend Willie Nelson. Not surprisingly, having that piece of information sprung on me dramatically changed the way I heard him; instead of evaluating him as a reasonably cute rock musician with a good set of guitar chops and a serviceable if not deathlessly great voice, I was listening for similarities to his famous dad — and also looking for them. Lukas Nelson looks believable as Willie Nelson’s son — especially if you’ve seen some of Willie Nelson’s early album covers (on the Hello, Walls album — Willie Nelson’s first solo album from 1960, capitalizing on the success of Faron Young’s recording of the title song — the photo is of a baby-faced, smooth-cheeked, clean-shaven young man who’s barely recognizable as the long-haired, long-bearded, grizzled-faced Willie Nelson we know today) — and one can hear similar vocal inflections, especially on slower songs. Live at the Belly Up helpfully gives chyrons telling the titles of the songs the band is playing — a practice I wish Austin City Limits and other pop-music shows on TV would emulate — though I missed one of them. The show began with a song called “Peaceful Solution,” which I couldn’t help but wonder if the band had written it in response to the last Presidential election: “There’s a peaceful solution/A peace revolution/Let’s take back America.” In fact, according to the band’s Wikipedia page, it was written by Willie Nelson and Lukas’s sister Amy Niccore and was on the group’s first full-length album, Promise of the Real, in 2010.

Given Lukas’s illustrious parentage, it’s not surprising his group actually got a few major breaks usually not accorded to struggling rock bands, including a 2008 mini-tour opening for (you guessed it) Willie Nelson and subsequent tours opening for B. B. King and Neil Young — indeed, unknowingly I’d already heard Promise of the Real since they backed Neil Young on his album The Monsanto Years and the tour Young did in support of it (which produced a live album called Earth). The band’s Belly Up show featured some intriguing covers, including Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (Lukas Nelson — whose dad gave him the interesting middle name “Autry,” after another country-music legend — sounded especially like Willie on the song’s slow introduction, less so when it sped up) and Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby,” which segued into a quite good song (I’m assuming an original) called either “I Get Antsy” or “Forever Is a Four-Letter Word,” about the singer’s disinclination to get married, settle down and do any of that commitment stuff. The band’s other songs were “Living It Up,” “Find Yourself,” “L’il Girl,” “Don’t Lose Your Mind” (a ballad during which Lukas sounded especially like his dad), “Bloody Mary Morning” (one of Willie Nelson’s biggest hits in the 1970’s and another one in which the family resemblance between their voices was unmistakable) and a finale called “Start to Go” in which Lukas Nelson pulled one of Hendrix’ most famous stage tricks: he raised his guitar to his mouth and started picking the strings with his teeth. The man who originated that gimmick was blues guitar great Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who also started the trick Hendrix copied of playing the guitar behind his back — Hendrix toured the chit’lin’ circuit with bands that opened for Walker, studied him and learned to do those things.

Heard without a knowledge of Lukas’s origins, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (as opposed to — the pun is just irresistible — Donald Trump and the Promise of the Unreal) is a reasonably good rock band, not especially original but blessed with genuinely talented musicians (the Wikipedia page names Corey McCormack as the bass player, Anthony Logerfo as the drummer and Tato Melgar as the percussionist, but I suspect the percussionist — mostly playing congas and tambourine — on the show was different, a grizzled old guy who would look more in place in Willie’s than Lukas’s band) that get a good, infectious sound together. Heard knowing that Lukas Nelson is Willie Nelson’s son, the Promise of the Real has obviously got breaks struggling rock bands usually don’t — like opening and/or playing backup for Neil Young, B. B. King and John Fogerty as well as Lukas’s dad — but also faces the burden of the inevitable comparisons that have sunk a lot of previous entertainers who were hoping to score on the basis of their famous dads (like Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Lewis, Jakob Dylan and Harper Simon). One thing I didn’t realize is that Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real actually got their start at the Belly Up in 2008 — before they released a full-length studio album they put out an EP of live performances — though I missed the copyright date on this show and therefore I can’t be sure, but this is probably a more recent (like 2015) return to a venue that helped launch them. I’d like to hear more from Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real but I wasn’t so knocked out by them I’d like to rush to a record store (or a Web site) and buy their CD’s.