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Interview: Lukas Nelson gets 'real' at Jazz Fest

Promise of the Real follows in the footsteps of father Willie and mentor Neil Young

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Lukas Nelson explains that the size and scope of his extended Texas-spawned family gathered on Maui translates into Hawaiian as 'ohana.

  "We're having a blast — it's the good life here," Nelson says by phone from the island, where he was raised as much as he was in his hometown of Austin, Texas. That split was a deliberate decision by his mother to avoid having to raise her son in a town where the shadow of his father — America's favorite pot-puffing, pigtailed patriarch, Willie Nelson — might loom too large.

  It goes without saying that being the son of outlaw-country's leading luminary opens doors in the music world. But for Nelson, 29, it was tutelage from rock master Neil Young that helped him find his voice and forge a sound with his band, Promise of the Real. It's not surprising to learn that Nelson formed the band with drummer Anthony LoGerfo the same night they met at a Young concert. The band's name was inspired by the lyrics of Young's classic "Walk On": "Some get stoned / Some get strange / Sooner or later it all gets real."

  The band was averaging 200 shows per year when Young befriended them at Farm Aid in 2014. Soon after, Young invited them to record with him on his album The Monsanto Years and go on tour as his backing band. Promise of the Real already was recognized for generating a relentless Crazy Horse-like rock crunch when the group mounted the Acura Stage with Young at Jazz Fest in 2016 amid whipping rain and a flooded Fair Grounds. The band held the soaked audience's rapt attention for a set that blasted off with a 20-minute, tour-de-force version of "Cortez the Killer" and dotted the exclamation point with an explosive "Powderfinger" to close the set.

  "That was a fun one," Nelson says. "I remember it was stormy, but the crowd was rocking — really into it. They were stoked for Neil. It was pretty cool playing with Neil."

  Nelson compares Promise of the Real's scenario with Young to that of Bob Dylan and The Band — a fertile proving ground for aspiring musicians who were playing behind a hero as much as a bandleader. That experience put Promise of the Real on the path toward its own rock stardom while also continuing the iconoclastic, true-blue hippie legacy inspired by Young.

  "We're definitely preserving a certain approach and philosophy to music," Nelson says when asked if the band is following Young's lead. "The music may change a little bit, but the approach and philosophy stay the same."

  Promise of the Real's music is uniquely its own. Though they're often compared, Lukas' voice does not mirror his father's. While the "cosmic country" description is fair, the band's bouncy tempo shuns the doldrums of classic country, and its pop accessibility is a far cry from Young's trippier tangents. The self-titled album released last year is a glowing embodiment of this originality. Produced by John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer), its dozen songs feature deft guitar play by Nelson ("Fool Me Once"), heart-breaking tales of love lost ("Forget About Georgia") and epic rockers ("Set Me Down on a Cloud"). There also are guest vocals by Lady Gaga on "Find Yourself" and a guitar solo by Willie Nelson on the pastoral "Just Outside of Austin."

  "His approach is that of hard work, perseverance and survival — that's what I learned from dad," Nelson says. "Both Neil and dad had those qualities. That's what it's all about."

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