When Lukas Nelson talks up last weekend’s Farm Aid concert at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin as “a real family affair,” he isn’t just referring to the fact that his iconic dad, Willie, is the guy behind the annual fundraiser festival.
“We played the full set with Neil, and then we had Margo get up with us during our set, and Nathaniel and the Night Sweats horns, too,” the 30-year-old singer and bandleader rattled off in an interview Monday.
Neil, if you haven’t been paying attention, is Neil Young; Nelson and his band Promise of the Real have served as Young’s backing unit off and on for five years now after first hooking up at Farm Aid. As for old-school country tunesmith Margo Price, she sings on Nelson’s newest album, while soul rocker Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats have shared many bills with Promise of the Real.
Talking by phone ahead of his group’s Minneapolis concert Wednesday night at the Varsity Theater, Nelson also nonchalantly brought up “Stefani” and “Bradley” when asked about his role on and off screen in last year’s film “A Star Is Born.”
“A real trip,” is how he summed up his Hollywood experience, which found him co-writing and recording several songs for the soundtrack with Lady Gaga (aka Stefani Germanotta) and Bradley Cooper. He and Promise of the Real were then asked to serve as the lead actors’ backing band in the movie.
With all those other famous friends wanting to work with him, no one could accuse Lukas of riding Willie Nelson’s ponytails anymore. He actually hasn’t for a long time.
The long-haired, scraggly bearded musician — who split his youth between Maui and Texas — has been kicking around, playing his own brand of southern-flavored rock, gritty blues and alt-twang music, for close to a decade now.
Minnesotans first got a glimpse of Lukas’ talent in 2004 when he was only 15. That summer, he filled in on guitar with Willie Nelson & Family while his dad healed from carpal tunnel syndrome on a ballpark tour with Bob Dylan, which landed at Mayo Field in Rochester.
Lukas was a noted songwriter by then, too. He landed a few songs on his dad’s albums in the early 2000s, including the surprisingly heartbroken “You Were It,” written at age 10, and “Over You Again,” a collaboration with his younger brother Micah, who now tours with his own band, the Particle Kid.
“Songwriting is just something I always knew I could do,” Lukas said. “I knew I needed to get better as a guitar player and a singer, and I hope I have improved as a songwriter, too. But I just felt like songwriting was something I always understood, and it’s still my greatest strength.”
His prowess as a writer certainly comes to light on his new album with Promise of the Real, promisingly titled “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden).” The mantra-like title song reflects Nelson’s hope to find — and provide — more positive distractions from the nonstop social-media and news cycle.
Nelson could only laugh, though, when asked if he has actually built a garden, as the lyric suggests.
“I have another 50 songs I want to record,” he responded, “so I guess you could say that’s my garden.”
Lukas Nelson on ...
His film and soundtrack duties for “A Star Is Born”: “I gotta say, a musician’s hours are a hell of a lot better than an actor’s. But I’m really grateful to Stefani and Bradley for bringing me in and really helping me grow as an artist with that movie, and for spotlighting my band, too. And I’d like to think it was mutually beneficial. A friend told me, when he heard that guitar lick come in for ‘Shallow,’ he knew it was us and something good was about to come, and that was very rewarding.
“I think one of the things that movie’s success showed is that people crave real instruments in their music, and real human emotions, too. And of course that’s what we want to represent.”
The inspiration behind his new album’s title song: “It just came from feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity, particularly from just sitting there watching tweet after tweet. I just thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t really help anything.’ Just being anxious about all the bad news 24-7 doesn’t do any of us any good.
“We all need to just go out and actually start doing something more positive, whether it’s something big like organizing a community event or doing charity work, or just doing something smaller that’s better for yourself. Like building a garden.”
Getting his dad to sing on the track “Civilized Hell”: “He happened to be in L.A. when we were recording at the Village Studio there, so he pulled the bus up. I told the guys at the studio, who are just the greatest, ‘My dad’s coming by,’ and they jumped into action, so he just had to drop in and do his thing. It was just perfect.”
Willie’s health, which forced him to cancel tour dates after his Aug. 2 concert at Target Center: “He’s doing really great. He’s back on the road now, and Micah is out there with him. He’s back to rocking and singing great again. He’s 86, you know, so it’s kind of uncharted territory to see how long he can keep doing it.
“You can count on half a hand the artists that have gone this long. This is right around the age B.B. [King] got sick, so Dad is pushing the envelope. But it’s what he loves to do, so I think he’ll keep doing it for a good long while.”
Bringing Farm Aid to Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre last Saturday: “Oddly enough, our very first rehearsal with Neil was there [in 2014]. We were getting ready for a European tour, and there was a show in Milwaukee ahead of that, so we set up down there. I remember that well. I got to play some golf there, which I love to do, like my dad.
“And it meant a lot to go there and connect with Stevie Ray Vaughan [who died in a helicopter crash there in 1990]. He’s just one of my greatest inspirations. This time around, I got to play ‘Texas Flood’ with my dad, which we do just about every night we play together, but it obviously meant a lot spiritually to do it there.”
How Young decides when to recruit the Promise of the Real, as he did for two recent studio albums and tour dates this summer: “Aw, hell no, I have no idea. There’s no explaining that guy. [He laughed.] But when we do come together, it feels cosmically right. That’s the power of Neil.
“Neil’s an inspiration, too, like Dad is. He can still hit those notes and play the way he did in his 20s. B.B. said a legend is someone who has stood the test of time, and I think Neil and Dad both have stood that test many times over just in their own lifetimes, just as B.B. did, and Bob Dylan, too.”
Opening for the Rolling Stones and the Who in recent months: “They were all really great to us, and their crews, too. They treated us with a lot of respect. It felt like they really could tell and appreciate that we’re a real band, you know.
“I think they recognized that I might be the guy who writes and sings the songs, but more than that I’m just a member of this band. We’re a true band. At this point, we’re just a really well-oiled machine, and I think we’re one of the tightest and best units out there. I really do.”