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Lukas Nelson returns to Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoLukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, led by singer-guitarist Nelson, second from left, plays Sunday, April 8 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – Lukas Nelson could have come up with a meaningless name for his band, something along the lines of Strawberry Alarm Clock or The The – something that said nothing. Instead he came up with something loaded with substance: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.Nelson and his mates – drummer Anthony LoGerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar, who were the earliest core of the group, plus bassist Corey McCormick – could have excused themselves from having to keep any implicit promises that came with the name by pointing to their youth; Nelson was still in his teens when he gave the band its title. But Nelson, now 23, and company have stuck to the line, going so far as to refer to their followers as “Realers.””It is a promise to be real – being real in the sense of showing all emotion,” the 28-year-old LoGerfo said from his home in Southern California. “Sometimes things are great in life, and sometimes not. We want to be pure with our emotions, lay it all out there. It puts us in a vulnerable space, but it also gets back to an old-school way of playing, not hiding behind smoke and mirrors.”Nelson then proceeded to show just how far he took the commitment to be real. Asked about the title of the band’s new record, “Wasted,” Nelson did indeed lay it all out there, specifying the bleakness he went through last summer.”I was drunk all the time. I felt I was wasting so much of my life and love and the people who loved me,” he said in his unaffected manner and unusually high-pitched voice, breathing heavily from a run he had just finished near his home on Maui. Unprompted, Nelson went on with the ugly details: “I had never done pills, but I decided to do pills when I was drunker than I’ve ever been, took Percocet, nearly died and choked on my vomit. Nearly lost everything.”The idea that such an incident could be tucked away and forgotten was lost on Nelson. His response was to make songs out of it – straight-banging, guitar-heavy blues-rock tunes like “Old Familiar Pain”; the gospel-like “Frame of Mind”; the country-laced power ballad “The Joint.””I felt it was appropriate to take a picture of it, put it in a bubble and let it go,” Nelson said of turning hard times into music. “It’s not in praise of being wasted. It’s just what was going on.”Nelson says that phase of life is behind him. He is off hard liquor, sticking to red wine. And he came away from his sun-less summer with a concrete lesson about life on the road, as a fast-climbing musician, as the son of music icon Willie Nelson. Being real doesn’t mean you have to buddy up to everyone who promises a good time.”I learned I can’t open up to everybody as I’d like to. They’d suck the energy from me, and I didn’t even know it was going on,” said Nelson, who leads his band to an Aspen appearance on Sunday, April 8 (9 p.m.) at Belly Up. “I’ve built a wall around myself, and the only ones I can trust are those inside the wall.”Nelson added that the title “Wasted” had another meaning, having to do with cousins of his in the military. “There’s a lot of wasting going on.”••••Most definitely inside the gates are the members of Promise of the Real. “These guys are my brothers. They stuck with me, always been there for me,” Nelson said.LoGerfo met Nelson early in 2009, when a mutual friend invited both of them to a Neil Young concert. Nelson, who had grown up in Hawaii, was attending Southern California’s Loyola Marymount, unhappy with college and life and wondering why he wasn’t focusing on the thing that did make him happy – music.”I was fed up with the world,” Nelson said. “I was studying classical music – except I don’t love classical music. I respect it. But I know I’m more suited to be out on the road.”In LoGerfo, Nelson met a friend, as much as a musician; the two spent most of their time together surfing. Then LoGerfo, who had been drumming in bands since he was 12 and playing clubs from the time he was 15, went off to Europe where a Swiss record company hired him to play behind jazz singers. The pay was good, the life was easy. But when Nelson emailed to say he was dropping out of school to form a band, LoGerfo was receptive.”He said there was no money; he said his parents would support him with love and guidance, but no money,” LoGerfo recalled. But this was the promise of something real – something of their own, something risky. “Something that could be life-lasting, and done with friends, not just with people in the music industry. “And what attracted me was that Lukas and I had become really good friends and we has the same mindset. I had never really found anybody to play with where we saw eye to eye, let egos down. Never felt that till Lukas.”Nelson brought in an old friend, Tato Melgar, and the trio was joined by original bassist Merlyn Kelly. The foursome got a van, played a bunch of gigs, and eventually did a tour as the opening act for Willie Nelson. But Promise of the Real had little in common with Nelson’s classic country sound; with Lukas firing up hot electric guitar licks, the band was more reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Neil Young & Crazy Horse – but with Lukas’ voice a reminder of what his roots were.Among the spots the band played early on was Belly Up in Aspen, which hosted several free shows. As they have at most places they’ve played, the group – with McCormick, an old friend of LoGerfo’s, replacing Kelly on bass – caught on quickly in Aspen, selling out recent shows. (This weekend’s gig, billed as a record release party, has a $20 ticket price.) “Aspen’s been a great support system. Michael” – Goldberg, the owner of Belly Up – “has been a fan and a supporter in a very smart way.”As the band rises in profile, Nelson is glad that, each night he can look up at the marquee and be reminded of what he and his mates have vowed to stand for.”One of the most important things in life is to remember things, be aware,” he said. “People have epiphanies, then they forget. What helps us to grow and evolve is to remember. So we have a reminder in the name of the band – we get to see it every day. It’s like if you have a wristband on that says, ‘Stay Real.’ It’s a reminder to ourselves, a mantra, to keep our integrity and remember those beliefs we have. In all our dealings, we should be real.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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