LIVE: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real @ Club Helsinki, 8/30/12

Review by Fred Rudofsky

“We’re in a lot of places a lot of the time! And we just played golf before the show!” exclaimed Lukas Nelson, singer and guitarist for Promise of the Real, to nods of approval and laughter last Thursday night at Club Helsinki in Hudson.

Just 23 years old, Lukas Nelson has established himself as a major force in American music, and it likely has not been an easy task – when your father is Willie Nelson, scrutiny comes naturally. Not only has he inherited his father’s ardent love of golf and a certain natural leafy substance, but also that distinctive vocal wavering that conveys wide open spaces and secret pangs in the soul. He is a fine songwriter, bold interpreter of iconic artists, and leader of a band that is best appreciated live.

Joined by three virtuosos – Corey McCormick on bass, Anthony Logerfo on drums and Tato Melgar on percussion – Nelson strapped on his Stratocaster and let it rip during a two-hour set, showing an amalgam of influences – especially Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Taylor and Eddie Shaver – in his tone, attack and lead-rhythm patterns. “Don’t Take Me Back” from his recent album “Wasted” howled like a coyote, while “The Awakening” explored a heightened state (“my eyes will burn with colors from above”). Throughout “Start to Go” and other high-tempo tunes, Nelson was a Texas tornado, shaking his head with the deep groove of the band and jumping around the stage with an ecstatic abandon that a Pete Townshend or Iggy Pop would admire.

“Ain’t No Answer” shook up some country blues big time. Shifting to a different plane, Nelson and POTR’s take on latter-day Hendrix was astonishing, jacking up the tempo of “Pali Gap” and adding a wah-wah bass line to “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” while substituting the latter’s “May I come along?” refrain with a flurry of notes between McCormick and Nelson.

“Wasted” began like ZZ Top, with pinched harmonics and images of life on the road giving way to an extended groove that had Helsinki patrons out on the dance floor. An instrumental take on Pink Floyd’s “Money” was swirling mayhem, while the pairing of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Amazing Grace” was pure genius. With its loud, Native American beat and generous solos all around, “Blue” had the crowd offering a standing ovation.

To their credit, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real avoid being pigeon-holed as just a “jam band” fixated on celebrating high times and lamenting love gone askew. 2010’s “Peaceful Solution” offered a sobering take on conflicts in the USA; “Fathers and Mothers” voiced a sincere plea to honor and cherish one’s family while time permits. With dark humor, “Four Letter Word” explored provincial strains on a marriage. The newly written “Haiti’s Eyes,” arguably the best song of the night, detailed how the poorest nation in the hemisphere has a story of resilience that political pundits and religious hypocrites fail to appreciate. “Jesus would bow to the flame you hold in your heart/ And so will the rest of world when they see who you are,” sang Nelson with humility and hope about this fragile Caribbean nation, where he had done volunteer work recently.

A smiling Nelson and Logerfo, inspired at a Neil Young concert a few years ago to form a band, counted off “Down by the River.” POTR went all Crazy Horse on the tune, soft to loud and back again, always gritty and glorious. When the song had ended, the crowd roared its approval as the band took a center-stage bow. Many shook hands with the band afterwards throughout the venue, before heading out into the full moon night, promise of the real fulfilled.

Fred Rudofsky’s review of opening act Sarah Borges at Nippertown

Don’t Take Me Back
The Awakening
Start to Go
Don’t Lose Your Mind
Peaceful Solution
Ain’t No Answer
Pali Gap/ Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) (Jimi Hendrix)
Fathers and Mothers
No Place to Fly
Money (instrumental, Pink Floyd)
Four Letter Word
Sympathy for the Devil (the Rolling Stones)
Amazing Grace (traditional)
Haiti’s Eyes
Down by the River (Neil Young)

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