Not many artists at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival have more expectations heaped upon them than Lukas Nelson, who’s spent much of the past two years touring and recording with Neil Young. There’s also that small matter of his last name: Yes, he’s Willie’s son. As if that weren’t enough, the guy named his band Promise of the Real.
Last Friday at the Miller Lite stage, Nelson and his band delivered with an hour of music that was Real indeed: passionate and tuneful, sometimes softly charming and at other times ferociously rocking. Whatever advantages his family ties brought him early on, Nelson is now showing that his band stands out entirely on the strength of its music.
Nelson set the tone with a sterling solo-acoustic rendition of “Just Outside of Austin,” a beautiful song from the band’s new self-titled album. “The music of the water on the rocks is getting louder as I walk toward whatever life may bring,” Nelson sang in a clear, sweet voice that’s hard not to compare to his father’s.
After an hourlong set that included many songs from their new record, Nelson and his four bandmates closed with a raw rock ’n’ roll version of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” one of many Petty tributes that rang out at the festival last weekend. They’ll be back at ACL Fest this weekend, after a sold-out show at Antone’s on Wednesday and a 5 p.m. free in-store at Waterloo Records on Thursday.
We sat down with Nelson just before his band’s performance and asked him about the challenge of playing his own music with such an iconic family legacy. He wisely sidestepped any comparisons. “My vision is just to become an artist. And I am an artist already, so I feel successful in what I do.
“Now it’s a matter of getting people to hear the music that I’ve created, and to be able to just make a living playing music. And playing not just music, but the music that makes my soul happy. If I can do that forever, I think I’ve got it made, in the best of ways.”
We talked more with Lukas about his band’s new self-titled record, which came out in August, and about “Willie and the Boys,” recorded with his father and his brother Micah and due out Oct. 20.
American-Statesman: The “Willie and the Boys” album was mostly recorded during the 2011 sessions for Willie’s “Heroes” album. Was there a plan at the time for this record to come out later?
Lukas Nelson: I did know that eventually the music that we did there would get out in some way. Dad’s really good about putting stuff out; he loves to put out new material all the time. It’s a natural progression to do a record together, and we hadn’t done one yet.
How will you handle touring behind both of these records?
We’ll do probably a little of both. I go out with my band whenever we can, and we’ll just have to balance that with going out with Dad, too. But we’ll get it all done. We also did a record with Neil Young, a new one that we just finished, and that’s coming out sometime soon, too. And we’re going to go on tour with Neil. So next year is going to be crazy. Neil’s our priority; we’ll wipe out the whole summer for him.
How much has playing in Young’s band helped your music?
It’s a legitimacy that we didn’t have. Once Neil took us out, it wasn’t just, “Oh, well, it’s Willie’s kid, there’s some nepotism involved.” People knew that you’ve got to be at least pretty good in order to go out with Neil Young and be his band.
Did he help in other ways, like making you a better writer and performer?
Absolutely. Any time you’re up onstage with somebody who’s that masterful at what they do, you can’t help but absorb, and learn subtle things that you just take with you to build into an enhanced stage presence.
You were born in Austin, but you were raised largely in Hawaii. Where is home these days, when you’re not touring?
Honestly, the most at home I feel is Maui, because I grew up there. There’s no beating it in terms of relaxation; you go out to the beach there or to a waterfall and just turn off.
There’s a song on the new Promise of the Real album called “Just Outside of Austin” — can you tell us a little more about that?
Well, I was picking around and found a cool little fingerpicking melody that reminded me a bunch of Roger Miller, just an old country song. It sounds a lot like “Gentle on My Mind,” the Glen Campbell song (written by John Hartford), which I realized after. But I just wanted to write a classic-sounding song in the style of one of my heroes. It’s an ode to my love for this place. I did grow up here a lot, especially in my early years. I have a lot of beautiful memories here.
READ MORE: A 2011 Austin360 interview with Lukas Nelson
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
In-store: 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11 at Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd. Free; waterloorecords.com
ACL Fest: 3:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, Miller Lite stage. $100 (Friday only), $255 (three-day); aclfest.com