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Rock’n’Roll Dalai Lama, Lukas Nelson


Lukas Nelson, left, and bassist Corey McCormick

Last week, over 100 people attended the Ukiah screening of “May I Be Frank,” the true story of brash, Brooklyn-born, 54-year-old poly-substance abuser Frank Ferrante, who allows three young men, all in their twenties to act as his “transformational cheerleaders” at one of the most critical junctures of his life. The men- all employees of San Francisco’s raw/vegan restaurant Cafe Gratitude, challenged Frank to suspend his life’s routine for 42 days and be part of a reverse “Super Size Me” experiment. The profound results set the stage for astonishing, long-lasting changes. Following the film, the audience and Ferrante marvel at the innate spiritual and secular wisdom displayed by his youthful coaches.

A few days earlier, 22-year old Lukas Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, played yet another searing two and a half-hour set at the Mateel Community Center to an overflowing down-home audience. And again, one could not help but be astonished at the profound sensibilities displayed by this up-and-coming young buck.

It isn’t that Nelson can effortlessly emulate and eclipse sonically complex, Hendrix-worthy guitar riffs. It isn’t that he has politely rebuffed requests to play with Bob Dylan’s band because he is committed to penning and performing his own music, and it isn’t that his abilities as a songwriter belie his two scant decades of life. Like those three young men from Cafe Gratitude, Nelson demonstrates an inner composure and healthy self-assuredness that many Seekers of Truth would be wise to emulate.

Nelson and his band Promise of the Real more than live up to their name. They are as real as rock ‘n’ roll gets. Drummer Anthony LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar and bassist Corey McCormick along with Nelson, primary songwriter and lead guitarist are poised to become the Next Big Thing. Recently anointed by both Letterman and Leno, with a new CD and a place on the three-week Country Throwdown tour, gigastardom may be only a matter of time. The band has never accepted financial support from, nor do they ride on the coattails of Lukas‘ father Willie (yes, that Nelson). In fact, when music major Lukas dropped out of Loyola Marymount College, the family drew a line in the sand and cut the purse strings, which was just fine with Lukas, who lived for a time in his car and perfected his chops doing street music in LA.

The band is paying their dues and hitting the road hard, generally performing in small venues all across the country. “POTR” as the are referred to, have opened for their share of major headliners including BB King, the Dave Matthews Band and of course the Senior Nelson.

It is both very easy and very difficult to separate father from son. When Lukas sings, one can’t help noticing the vocal similarity between the two. But there the comparisons end. The most significant attributes they share are their boundless passion for music and a natural talent for heartfelt songwriting.

“I guess we’ve played Mendo and Humboldt about five or six times now. “We like to be relaxed,” says Nelson, who is great at eye contact and perfectly comfortable saying, “Yes, ma’am.”

And in comparison to those network debuts where he sported noticeably coiffed hair, neatly trimmed beard and impeccable cowboy chic, Nelson certainly does look, well, more “relaxed” at the Mateel — a venue far away from the suffocating clutches of fandom, traffic and industry remoras.

Nelson had an interest in and exposure to music from the time he was very young, taking the road with the Waylon/Kristofferson/Cash/Nelson supergroup the Highwaymen, writing his first songs at the age of 12 and starting his first band a few years later. He rubbed elbows with music illuminati from an early age, but what rubbed off went straight to his ears and not his head. He’d be the last one to say it, but Nelson has absorbed and will surpass many of his musical mentors — Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Allman Brothers and countless blues and American roots masters. The band is as comfortable with standards as they are with Nelson’s original material. They do a scorching, sexy “Hoochie Coochie Man” and bring an entirely new take to Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.”

Perhaps it is their rendition of Neil Young’s “L.A.” that demonstrates their musical maturity and appreciation for one of the most fertile times in rock ‘n’ roll history. In Humboldt, the entire crowd joins Nelson in Young’s sarcastic refrain, “Don’t you wish that you could be here too.” Actually, not so much. That’s why they’re at the Mateel, living in the EmTri- as far away from Hollywood as you can get.

Nelson regularly cites Neil Young as one of his primary influences. When he speaks   about meeting Young for the first time his sense of awe and deep respect are palpable. We spoke about how certain songs become place markers for significant times in one’s life.  “I could listen to Neil all the time. All of his songs affect me like that.” Nelson listens to Pandora, keeping his selection dialed into Tulsa musicians, Neil, Dylan, Delaney and Bonnie, Odetta. On the contemporary front, he’s impressed with Arcade Fire (“I heard them do a number with David Bowie which stayed with me for a while”), Mumford and Sons, Neko Case, Jack Whyte and Modest Mouse.

Duke Ellington said, “Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one.” Nelson says much the same. On his Facebook page, he says “Music is my religion.”

And it is that merging of music and mystery which Nelson is considering a few short hours before pounding out some of the best rock’n roll, blues and country music anyone could ask for.

“I don’t believe in organized religion,” he notes, gently turning a small, roughly triangular-shaped rock on the picnic table as we chat. “I like spirituality. I don’t like religion. I feel like it teaches people that they’re not worthy.”

“I was raised to have an open mind- to accept whatever truth comes into my heart. I’m not saying religion is all bad. Mostly there is corruption, some kind of agenda. I think it is good to sift through ideals,” says Nelson. “Religion can be helpful for people who don’t wish to think for themselves.”

He objects to the juxtaposition of faith, sin and spiritual proselytization. “It’s not coming from a place in the heart when you’re told you have to believe in certain things or you’ll go to hell. People shouldn’t meddle in other peoples’ business. I never really enjoyed that kind of organized conversion of people.”

Nelson’s songs are filled with references to spiritual struggle, some exuding a gospel-like hopefulness.

When I wake up, the eagle will forever fly my name.

When I wake up, your tears will shed the potion of my pain.

My soul will shine like northern lights- like the way my life’s supposed to go

My mind will play a melody that weaves us through the web our hearts have sown.

* * *

“Everyone wakes up — wakes up and goes back to sleep. I’ve sailed so far away from the concept of good and bad- they really don’t exist. There’s so much good happening in the world. If you’re looking to lump something into ‘good and bad’ you’re going to be sorely mistaken.”

Here is a young man who bends strings like Mike Bloomfield and plays as well with his teeth as most play with their fingers. But at his foundation are life’s biggest questions. “Death. People get so freaked out. You keep going no matter what. It’s nothing bad. Death as sacred as life and birth. When something tragic happens you hear people saying all the time, why would God let this happen? People die. People have different times to go.”

There’s a peaceful solution

Called a peace revolution

Let’s take back America

There’s a war and we’re in it

But I know we can win it

— Willie Nelson

“Peaceful Solution” is almost always a part of a POTR show. “Violence is becoming a dying art,” says Lukas. “We’re not accomplishing anything from it. You act according to your spiritual development. People who understand simplicity, who understand less is more, benefit- on many levels of emotional health.”

Nelson is planning an upcoming trip to Japan- not to perform, but to serve. “A dear friend was in Tokyo during the tsunami. I’m planning to go over to help out in any way- working however I can. I’ll probably stay at least a couple hundred miles away from the reactors. I’m thinking I’ll end up working at one of the shelters.”

At a recent concert, attendees were in tears- was it was the unbridled abandon of the band, the shredding guitar and primal yowl that almost evoked the specter of a sober Kurt Cobain, or the shared joke in the Dylanesque lines of an audience favorite:

My Independence calls me

from a pay phone far away

He says, listen, man I’m worried,

you ain’t never been this way

And I get antsy

Real commitment seems absurd

Out here in the country

Forever is a four-letter word

Whatever the case, the audience belonged to the band. People left the hall in shock. “Not only was that the best concert I’ve ever been to, that was the best fuckin’ rock ’n’ roll I’ve ever heard,” proclaimed one 60-something gentleman, to whoops and high-fives from everyone surrounding him. When Nelson heard this anecdote, he seemed startled. It was literally as if this was the first time the band had received a complement. “Well, that’s what it’s about- letting people relax, having a party. I don’t like people to just sit down and clap. It’s all about releasing pent up energy,” he notes.

And why would they sit down — at 26, super-drummer Anthony LoGerfo — whose infectious smile can be seen from the back of the hall has toured with Gwen Stefani, Jackson Browne, Ozomatli and friend and mentor John Avila, bassist from legendary Oingo Boingo and original bassist for POTR.

Bassist Corey McCormick has a diverse musical background with appreciation of everyone from Stravinsky to Black Sabbath, but it was getting a gig with Soundgarden’s legendary vocalist Chris Cornell which took him all over the globe and ultimately to POTR, where he can hold down a dark, growly, funky bottom or provide subtle support on a poignant country chorus.

Tato Melgar, gifted percussionist from Uruguay and Argentina, has been a childhood friend of Lukas who together formed two other bands before enlisting LoGerfo and McCormick. Melgar breathes fire into the band whether he’s on congas or timbales. Each band member always solos, and it is immediately evident that Nelson is only one of four bright lights illuminating the band’s musical landscape. The band is comprised of master musicians who easily stand alone, but together their synergy is infectious, down and dirty and utterly inspiring.

And then there’s the hair-whipping. Another celebrity child- Willow Smith, precocious 10-year-old daughter of Will and Jada, has 47 million YouTube hits for her pop debut, “I Whip My Hair.” Obviously, young Willow has been studying the moves of Lukas, who is by far the best hair-whipper to date. Head-bangers everywhere, be proud. Lukas has perfected this move- direct from the classic rock ‘n’ roll playbook.

Nelson has an acceptance of and optimism about the future. “People are going to fret, argue debate and kill each other. Hopefully as time goes by, people will start learning. It’s already getting better in the world. There is always going to be negative and positive- that’s just science. What you have to do is personally liberate yourself from that wheel — that cycle. Truth has never been easy to see. Your personal level of truth will tell you that things happens for a reason. There always has to be a journey in your life. Where focus goes, energy flows.”

Don’t lose your mind

Don’t let your thoughts control you

I tell myself this all the time

‘Cause you’re not real

Work hard for life

Don’t act like you deserve it

Though you know it to be true

The world you know can end on you

Spoken like a true Buddhist. Which is why Nelson is the perfect candidate for the next Dalai Lama, now that His Holiness is proposing democratic elections for the Tibetan people. Why not? Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. The Dharma isn’t going anywhere. Born in the Year of the Dragon, a student of compassion and wisdom, embodier of skillful means- Lukas has a great spiritual resume. The spirit of loving-kindness pervades his very essence, he’s got great advisors and most importantly, like the Dalai Lama, Lukas Nelson ROCKS.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama’s celibacy vow would have to wait a few years, but Tibetans have always had the gift of flexibility. However, since many of his fans are veteran rockers from the sixties and seventies, it seemed fitting to ask Nelson if he liked older women. The blush and the long pause before answering were both apparent. “Well, I honestly don’t really know how to answer that one,” he smiled.

Lukas Nelson’s totem animal, the Red-Tailed Hawk, screeches a long, keening “kreee” the following morning- the Emerald Triangle’s salute to an impeccable group of artists who will no doubt “keep it real” for many years to come.

I’m riding my own wave

I’m breath in the sunset

And I feel- Lord I feel so free

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