Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real are lifting off, inspiring a generation in the process

Story by Joseph T. O’Connor

Photos by Daniel Bullock

In 2002, Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Headlining his reception were Country Outlaw Willie Nelson and guitar legend Carlos Santana, among others.

The Nobel Committee recognized Carter, the 39th U.S. president and a Georgia native, for his “untiring efforts” to promote peace, equality and human rights around the world. At Carter’s request, Nelson performed a soulful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind” before the entire cast of artists sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

During pre-show sound check, a 13-year-old Lukas Nelson was introduced to Santana, who leaned down from the stage. “Maybe one day I’ll be opening for you,” Santana told Willie’s son.

“I was just starting to play guitar,” Lukas recalls. “That blew my mind, you know? And I just kept playing.”

Lukas Nelson turns 26 on Christmas Day, 2014, a rising star in a world of prodigious rock ‘n’ rollers that influence him and his band, Promise of the Real. The band spun a web of more than 100 concerts around the country in 2014, RollingStone.com recently featured POTR’s new song called “Find Yourself,” and their third studio album is expected in 2015.

But behind this four-man rock show, glows light from a torch seeking new hands: POTR represents the next generation of musicians using their talent to inspire social change.

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Lukas Autry Nelson talks of heroes like some folks rattle off their record collection: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Eddie Vedder. His middle name comes from his Godfather, the singing cowboy Gene Autry. These artists influenced him musically, but also left their mark as leaders and activists, philanthropists and teachers.

Each found ways to inspire awareness in their fans: Dylan’s lyrics, Charles’ donations to the deaf, Bridge School, Farm Aid, the list goes on. Lukas is adding to that list and, like his idols, making a stance in a world that’s seeking heroes.

“Ask me later! I’m marching,” Lukas Nelson texted from last October’s March for Elephants and Rhinos in San Francisco.lukas_march_2 He was filed among a throng of activists protesting ivory poaching before Promise of the Real took the stage in Golden Gate Park the next day for the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

In the past five years, Lukas Nelson and POTR have played shows benefiting Free the Slaves, the nonprofit aiming to abolish slavery around the world; the AIDS Service Center; and the Animal Welfare Institute. Believing isn’t enough, Lukas says.

“I don’t necessarily stand up for what I believe in,” he said. “I think that’s how wars get started. I stand up for what I see; what I see is wrong…I act according to how I was raised and what my heart tells me.”

Last October, Lukas and POTR also performed in Mountain View, California at the annual Bridge School Benefit concert, which has raised money and awareness since 1986 for physically impaired children who need advanced communication assistance. Organized by Neil Young, the 2014 concert featured Young, POTR, Pearl Jam and Florence and the Machine, among others. Lukas sat in with Eddie Vedder for an acoustic version of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”

That same month the Matthew Silverman Memorial Foundation, a suicide-awareness nonprofit, recognized Lukas as a 2014 Matt’s Hero Award recipient. During the benefit show in Santa Monica, he performed four acoustic songs and dedicated the last one to his late brother Billy, a victim of a 1991 suicide.

“His performance was extraordinary. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Ron Silverman, who founded the Matthew Silverman Memorial Foundation two years ago in memory of his son who committed suicide in 2006. “[Lukas] has a big heart and a passion for giving back.”

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On stage Lukas Nelson is an ace frontman, wielding “Georgia,” his 1956 Les Paul Junior with machinist precision during guitar solos in POTR’s “Love Yourself”; he flashes the crowd a telling smile covering Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”; he takes up an entire stage lukas_frontmanseemingly all at once, bouncing from percussionist Tato Melgar to drummer Anthony LoGerfo, to trading licks with bassist Corey McCormick.

“He keeps you on your toes,” said McCormick, 37, who joined POTR in April 2010 after an international touring stint with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

Lukas met LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert in 2008. Over the next year, Nelson and LoGerfo played music up and down the California coast. Then, after a year studying at Loyola Marymount University in L.A., Nelson picked up the phone.

“He basically called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’m quitting school and want to form this band, Promise of the Real, and I want you to play drums,’” said LoGerfo, 31.

Lines from the opening track, “Walk On” from Neil Young’s 1974 album, “On the Beach,” inspired the name Promise of the Real. “Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later, it all gets real,” wrote Young.

“That’s the promise,” muses Lukas. “That’s our band.”

Lukas and POTR performed on a cool night at Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon in West Yellowstone, Montana last August. Wild West owner Aaron Hecht spent a few days with Lukas on either side of the show.

“He was raised with a guitar in his hand,” Hecht said. “He’s a great performer with great stage presence.lukas_willie The rest of those guys are super-talented musicians too. They’re a tight, polished band.”

After two days of playing golf at the Yellowstone Club and the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club near Big Sky, Hecht drew a bead on Lukas, off stage.

“We talked a lot about social issues,” Hecht said. “He just wants to learn and hear other people’s points of view, but he can have a meaningful conversation rather than a pissing match about issues. That’s the kind of guy he is; no pretension at all.”

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Last September, a warm, steady breeze blew dust into the northwest Nebraska air, the ground covered in trampled cornhusks. Nearly 8,000 people flocked to Harvest the Hope, a concert protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline expansion.

Headlining the show were Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and Lukas Nelson and POTR, featuring Lukas’ younger brother Micah.

As the red sun slumped lower in the sky, Willie’s famous twang echoed in the heartland air, strumming “Whiskey River” before playing “Good Hearted Woman.” Even at 81, Willie was Willie, despite the New Balance sneakers that replaced his cowboy boots. He wore a cap reading, “Pipeline Fighter.”

After Neil Young’s solo set, which included “Heart of Gold” and a stirring “Mother Earth” performed on the pump organ, he invited Lukas, Micah, and POTR back on stage. A red-tailed hawk feather protruded from the headstock of Lukas’ guitar, catching the fading sunlight and lukas_neilyoungstanding out against Young’s black T-shirt reading, “Idle No More.”

Young broke into his new song calling on humanity to preserve the earth’s natural resources, called “Who’s gonna stand up?” Lukas and POTR are answering that call.

“We’re here representing our generation for this cause,” Lukas said before the show. “There are so many alternative fuel opportunities now. You have to fight against the ‘big snake’ no matter what,” he said, referring to the name Native Americans gave the pipeline. “There needs to be a shift in the way people think.”

Young led the band in a raucous rock ‘n’ roll set, as “Uncle Neil” and Lukas faced each other, swaying, trading guitar solos. Young peered at his apprentice from beneath the brim of his black cowboy hat.

“Keep going,” he mouthed.

This story was first published in the winter 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.