About seven years ago, Lukas Nelson went to see his hero Neil Young play in Los Angeles. At the show, he happened to meet a drummer named Anthony LoGerfo. They took the party to a friend's house, where they surfed and played music late into the night. Soon, they'd formed a band, Promise of the Real, their name taken from a lyric Young's 1974 epic "Walk On:" ("Some get stoned/ some get strange/ but sooner or later, it all gets real.")
Now, for the last two years, the "cowboy hippie surf rock" band has been Young's band on the road and in the studio, backing him on last year's The Monsanto Years. "You couldn't write it in a book," Nelson says. "The vibe is perfect, and it's real. We've learned from each other, and we've gotten so tight. I don't want to stop, and I don't think Neil does either. There's transcendental experiences on stage with Neil. Like, you're looking down at yourself and you'll be like, 'Oh my God. I'm down there, and I'm up here. What's going on?'"
For Nelson, this chapter is the culmination of years of hard work and hard touring for his band, which includes LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Meglar, plus Lukas' brother Micah on guitar and other instruments – when he's not touring with his own project, Insects vs Robots. Lukas grew up on the island of Maui, Hawaii, a student of the island's jam band scene and his guitar teacher, gypsy-jazz virtuoso Tom Conway. There was also his dad, Willie Nelson. By 14, Lukas was playing guitar with his father on summer school breaks, occasionally sitting in with his dad's touring partner, Bob Dylan. Willie's Number One rule at home while Lukas was growing up: "Don't be an asshole."
"My dad and I are alike in a lot of ways," he says. "I've always looked up to him, and I've always wanted to be like him, in terms of being a human being, and also in terms of being a musician. I'm lucky to have such a great example."
To record their new album, Something Real, Nelson and his band moved to San Francisco, living and working in a 19th-century Victorian mansion. "The vibe was so deep and heavy," Nelson says. "It used to be a Russian embassy. It was one of the first places ever to have a radio signal come out of. It could have been the first radio signal ever to come out of a tower there, in the mansion. And I mean, it's got old gramophones in it." They built a studio and utilized the house's equipment, like a century-old pump organ, which can be heard on their menacing album closer, a cover of Scott McKenzie's 1967 classic "San Francisco," with vocals from Young himself.
Nelson pulled from his experiences in San Francisco while writing the LP. The song "Forget About Georgia" is about a woman named Georgia he met during his time in the city. "She kind of broke my heart," he says. "And I felt like, 'Wow. This girl twisted me around.' And I was in love with her." Nelson's heartbreak worsened when he hit the road with his father, and he had to play "Georgia on my Mind" on stage every night. "We'd play that song, and I'd be thinking about her. And I'd be like, 'Fuck, I can't forget about this girl. I just wanna let it go.'"
Another defining moment came one day when Nelson was walking in the Tenderloin neighborhood, and he overheard a homeless man say, "Today was an ugly color." It inspired him to write the seven-minute ballad, "Ugly Color," about the cruelty in the world from the perspective of the man, which peaks with a searingly melodic solo. "There was a period during that guitar solo that something else took over, and just came through the band," Nelson says. "It was like we were channeling some deep-seated sorrow and longing, from the city of San Francisco itself."
In June, Promise of the Real play a handful of dates with Young (including New Orleans' Jazz Fest) before a longer run in Europe. Earlier this month, Young said he was nearly finished with his second album with the group, calling his connection with them "effortless."
"I feel really good and amped and energized," Young says. "And I feel like I'm doing something I've never done before. It's not just music. It's a soundscape. It's kind of like flying around and listening to things with your eyes closed."
Nelson says he's certainly learned quite a bit from Young. "Neil is one of the sharpest tools you'll ever meet. He's detail-oriented. It's cool to watch him be so involved, to tell the crew that they've gotta dress up and put a hazmat suit on and all that. I love watching it. I love being a part of it."
"We'll warm up vocally 30 minutes before every show," says Nelson. "Doesn't matter what show it is, doing it causes you to really lock in with your band, too. You just lock right in, and you go right out to stage. Neil, without fail, will do that every show, and I think it's brilliant. I think it really brings people together."
But before that, the Promise of the Real will head out in May on their biggest headlining U.S. tour yet. Nelson is looking forward to building the connection he's forged with his audience. "I went and saw this psychic one time, and she told me that I was good at bringing people into this holographic bubble of energy," he says. "I don't know that a psychic is something that I would base my life decisions on, but I do think it was cool, the way she described it. It's like you're creating your own virtual reality area for the three hours that the music is playing, and you're bringing all these people into this little holographic world where everybody kind of feels similar. You just get lost."