Jim Eckenrode
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Credit: Jim Eckenrode

The members of Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real met at a Neil Young show.

After the concert, Lukas, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Merlyn Kelly and some friends adjourned to Kelly’s practice pad in Seal Beach, Calif. They jammed into the wee hours and went surfing in the dark. It was so much fun that, when a stingray zapped Nelson, he shook it off to keep the night alive. The next day, he wrote the lyrics for “My Own Wave”: So much left to show / But the music never slows / It goes and goes.

“We started the band that night,” Nelson said.

After recruiting longtime family friend and percussionist Tato Melgar, the foursome spent the next six months playing on the beach for anyone who’d listen. Then they decided to hit the road.

Nelson wanted the band to pay its dues. “I’d just read (Hermann Hesse’s) Siddhartha—I needed to leave a place of comfort and go out and feel the extremities of both sides of humanity. I wanted to sleep in cars, on couches, and get to know people. I felt like my parents had already given me a fulfilling life; I didn’t want to have to ask them for money.”

That’s an admirable sentiment, considering Nelson’s father is living legend Willie Nelson.

So in the fall of 2008, POTR lit out in LoGerfo’s old pickup, calling themselves Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, inspired by a verse from Neil Young’s “Walk On”: Some get stoned / Some get strange / But sooner or later / It all gets real.

On tour, Lukas bared his soul and used his teeth to play ripping extended guitar solos. The crowd embraced POTR’s open, joyful vibe and sincere, raucous country-rock tunes. It took five months before the group saw any money, but finally, proceeds from a soundboard-recorded EP, Live Beginnings, enabled POTR to upgrade from a truck to a dangerously rickety RV.

That’s when Willie and his wife, Annie, intervened: “They didn’t want us to kill ourselves in that RV,” Lukas said. The Nelsons gave the band a bus, but left the fuel, maintenance and driver expenses to Lukas and co.

In June 2009, the group released the Brando’s Paradise Sessions EP, featuring “My Own Wave.” Kelly left, and Corey McCormick joined in time for the band’s eponymous first LP.

April 2012 brought the group’s second album, Wasted. The band picked up more new fans—like Neil Young, who came to POTR’s show this time. Although Young and Willie had been friends for years, Lukas “didn’t know Neil that well”—they’d only met a few times, Lukas said. Since connecting backstage, however, Young has become POTR’s guru.

“He’s given us a ton of advice,” Lukas said. “Besides my father, Neil is my biggest influence.”

Mutual admiration led Young to invite the band to back him up on his 2015 album, The Monsanto Years, which is credited to Neil Young + Promise of the Real. POTR toured with Young to promote the record, and will do more shows with him soon. In the meantime, the group is finishing its third album, and has released Realer Bootlegs Vol. 1, a stopgap EP to pacify fans while POTR talks with record labels.

Lukas pledges that he’s all about keeping it real.

“That’s a promise Neil made, and it’s a promise we make: We’ll deliver reality, whether it’s sadness, happiness, boredom, good friends, inspiration,” he said. “Whatever it is, we’ll deliver it musically.”

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real will perform with Insects vs. Robots at 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 12, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com. This story originally appeared in the Salt Lake City Weekly.