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Son of Willie Rides Again: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real Return to BellyUp Aspen

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

ASPEN - “So many times, a song is already there. You just need to chisel at it, like a block of wood, and uncover what the universe has already given you,” says Lukas Nelson, songwriter, musician, son of Willie and frontman of the 9-month old Promise of the Real, returning to the BellyUp for a free show this Thursday, September 17. “I’ll say something in my head, or out loud and I’ll think, ‘this could be a song.’ Then I’ll just start writing around the idea.”

Growing up on tour, playing percussion onstage from the age of 5 and being an essential part of the Nelson Family Traveling Circus gave Lukas a love for a constantly fluctuating lifestyle. But it all started in the closet, at age 11.

“Something about music captured me; I knew it was what I wanted to do, right off the bat. I’d lock myself in my closet and play Dylan, the Beatles, Jimi, Stevie Ray, over and over on the guitar,” he recalls. “I knew I wanted to be a performer, like my heroes before me”.

Singing and songwriting were a little later in blooming. “I sang when I was really little, before everything else, but I always thought I sounded like a girl and I stopped for a long time. Then in college I started again; I was bored with school and I’d grab my acoustic guitar and go troubadour style, learning songs that people wanted to hear and putting together 2-hour sets,” shares Lukas.

“Listening to and being around my dad all those years, his style of singing is most natural to me, so I suppose I subconsciously model my style after his,” he continues. Willie himself has written that that signature sound comes from diaphragmatic breathing, though it sounds more nasal in quality. “But I try to blend my sound with Neil Young, Dylan, Aaron Neville, Ray Charles, as well,” continues Lukas: “really, anyone who’s a master at what they do, is an influence on me.”

Being Willie Nelson’s son makes him proud and while it’s always eyebrow-raising, his last name is more of an auspicious beginning than an end in and of itself. “BB King once said, ‘A legendary person is someone who stands the test of time.’ My dad is a musical genius, and a legendary person. I’m proud of him and how he’s dealt with life in the best way possible. He is certainly a part of who I am; but I am also a musician and I write my own songs and after you know I’m Willie Nelson’s son, it matters what I bring to the table,” he reflects.

Promise of the Real features Lukas on lead guitar and lead vocals, Anthony Logerfo on drums, backing vocals and occasional shirt-lifting; Merlyn Kelly plays bass guitar on the band’s EP, while JP Maramba has since joined the band onstage. Promise of the Real leans towards blues, a little folk and good old rock and roll. “I have no idea how to label it,” says Lukas; “but we come to it with a rock and roll attitude!”

The band’s five-song EP also contains some very personal lyrics from its frontman. “When my girlfriend and I first broke up, I felt really shitty. She’s part of the reason I quit school,” he begins, more of a revelation than an accusation: “I didn’t want to study; I just wanted to play music. I knew music could heal me. After 6 months apart I realized I really loved her and we’re now back together; but Track 4, ‘Want You Around’, is a real strong song for me. I actually couldn’t play it for awhile,” he confesses.

“One night we were having a deep conversation and she didn’t feel as strongly about the particular subject as I did, but I realized just being around her was what mattered. ‘I want you, to want me around’, was what came to mind; she went to take a shower and like in a movie, I looked up and saw her silhouette and the light in her window.” ‘You stood in the window of my soul, and I played for you’ leads to ‘Feel the rhythm, ride the tide, rise above’, warm moments in a poignant song which stresses the importance of loving one’s self, in order to truly love someone else.

Indeed, cultivating the self is at the top of his list, from reading to talking with people to ultimately, learning to let go. “My parents have been together for 25 years and my mom was very strict while I was growing up; we were often targets, as a family, and she had to be protective. I always wanted to prove myself to her, let her know I could handle myself- but it always seemed to backfire,” explains Lukas.

“I started reading at the age of 3 and was always drawn towards learning about people...Buddhism, philosophy, and most recently, the Power of Now. I’ve learned to breathe more, and relax. And in terms of my mother, I learned that the less you worry about something, the less it becomes a problem. The more you learn to love yourself, keep that light in your eyes, the more you’ll be at peace and draw people to you. And learning to let go - you don’t have to be happy about it, but you have to be at peace with it; only then, do things rearrange themselves into what will make you happy. That’s what life is, learning to let go. And I’m going to keep doing it.” He pauses, then chuckles: “O.K., time to move on.”

Moving ahead, Promise of the Real will head out on tour with Dave Matthews and Willie this month, then join B.B. King for repeat performances in October and November. While hitting the road is familiar territory, it always poses some challenges for a healthy lifestyle. “I’ll try to get into a routine – run every day, push-ups and pull-ups; then, we’ll be touring for a couple of weeks and I’ll just wanna lie around,” shares Lukas, with a laugh. “I’ll do yoga, when I think about it; I’ll meditate, when I think about it…but then we’ll get these 10-hour poker things going on the road. Good stuff!”

Back home in Venice Beach, California, he has a passion for surfing, sailing and all things water. Growing up in Maui, Lukas recalls hiking around waterfalls and plunging into the depths below: “I can jump from pretty high heights.”