Lukas Nelson takes after famous father, and takes stage in Aspen
ASPEN – To get a certain family member to practice her cello, I have pleaded, cajoled, bargained and threatened. So it makes me jealous to hear that, when Lukas Nelson’s dad wanted Lukas to start playing guitar, all he had to do was ask. Just once. And from then on, the younger Nelson never had to be pestered again.Of course, I’m not Willie Nelson, and Lukas Nelson’s dad is.”I was talking with my dad one day, when I was 11 or 12, and asked him what he wanted for his birthday,” Lukas Nelson said from his home in Los Angeles. “He said he wanted me to play guitar. So I said sure. And I fell in love with it.”On “Brando’s Paradise Sessions,” a five-song EP recorded nearly two years ago, when he was 20, Nelson demonstrates an impressive command of the instrument. (The playing was so notable that I was prompted to check the liner notes, to make sure it actually was Nelson responsible for those mercury-like, electric licks. It was.) On the debut full-length album by Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, a self-titled work due for release next month, Nelson takes on an assignment that only a self-assured guitarist would: He covers Hendrix. (Specifically, “Pali Gap,” an instrumental tune from “South Saturn Delta.”)”Guitar is a tool, like yoga or surfing. It’s a meditation,” Nelson, who performs Saturday at Belly Up, said. “It’s the way I reach that bliss. I don’t do it now for my dad’s approval.”But Nelson adds that guitar is not his primary form of expression. “My strength is my writing. Even beyond my guitar playing,” he said. “I need my guitar to express how I feel in my songs; it’s more a part of the songs. It’s not show-offy, or playing fast.”So while Nelson is an accomplished guitarist, and a devoted songwriter, the aspect of music that has given him trouble is singing. Nelson’s singing voice is uncommonly high-pitched; if anything, it is even higher when he speaks. And it wasn’t as if he could hide it easily, since he was touring with his father from the time he was a kid, often taking a turn on stage.”I didn’t like my voice,” Nelson, who spent his teen years playing – first percussion, then rhythm guitar – in his father’s band, said. “I had it in my mind what my voice sounded like, but I couldn’t do it. I thought I sounded like a girl. So I stopped once I started playing guitar.”At the end of his high school years, Nelson tried out his voice again. It is still high – with a hint of his dad’s Texas drawl – but this time, he was more comfortable with it. While studying music at Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, and then, after dropping out, becoming a street performer on Venice Beach, he was pleased enough with his sound to consider a career that included getting onstage and singing. He formed a series of bands, and eventually founded Promise of the Real, which made its debut by playing five shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, opening for his father. Two weeks later they were in the studio, recording the “Brando’s Paradise” EP, which features Nelson’s singing as much as his picking.”I’m pretty happy with it now,” Nelson said of his voice. “I’m learning what keys sound best, and how to sing lower. Singing low is important because you get a full, round sound to it. It doesn’t sound like I’m on helium anymore.”Nelson has had plenty of opportunity to see how audiences respond to his voice. His band has toured as the opening act for B.B. King and done dates with the Dave Matthews Band. With next month’s release of “Promise of the Real,” Nelson’s voice is exposed to a wider audience. The album, recorded at Pedernales Studio, a facility near Austin developed by Willie Nelson, features a cover of Neil Young’s “L.A.” and a song written by Lukas’ father and sister, Amy.While his guitar playing owes more to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan than it does to his father, Nelson makes clear that his father ranks among his idols.About the decision to play guitar, Nelson said, “It was a moment: ‘This is something I can do for my dad.’ I’m always seeking his approval, and I’m happy when I can make him proud. He’s a hero of mine and I try to live my life by the philosophies he handed down to me.”While the music he makes with Promise of the Real doesn’t immediately have much in common with his father’s acoustic-based country sound, Nelson says it all comes from the same family.”It kind of all ties together – blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It’s interpretations of the same things. There’s less room between Hank Williams and Robert Johnson than people think. Of course, I wouldn’t ever compare myself to Hank. But I’m trying to make music that touches people’s soul in a similar way.”email@example.com
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