Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (from the album A Few Stars Apart on Fantasy Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
If serving as Neil Young's backing band can be taken of a mark of quality (as surely it must) then Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real are up there with the best. On their own terms, this Texas/Hawaii five-piece have racked up six well-received albums over the last decade, with Nelson himself scooping both a BAFTA and a Grammy for his work on the soundtrack to the hit 2018 film A Star Is Born. Being the son of a music legend (Willie Nelson) must have placed a real pressure of expectation upon young Lukas’ shoulders, but clearly, he's found a way to chart his own course. This is an admirable achievement in itself.
As with so many albums this year, A Few Stars Apart was largely influenced by Lukas Nelson's experiences with his loved ones during the Covid pandemic. ‘I’m from what one might say is the ultimate road family’ explains Nelson. ‘I’ve never been anywhere longer than three months, and suddenly here we are, the four of us together. And thank god we were together’. The songs were recorded live with the band at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, where greats from The Beach Boys to Ben Folds and Loretta Lynn have recorded successfully. You get the distinct impression that, even for this thoughtful artist, A Few Stars Apart represents something special. As Lukas Nelson himself says, ‘there’s a story being told through the whole record. A story about connection and coming home’.
“We'll Be Alright” starts us off. As you'd expect, we're firmly in classic Americana territory here. Lukas Nelson's voice is certainly reminiscent of his father's, easy-on-the-ear and full of earnest emotion. ‘Despite the darkness, we'll be alright’ he sings as Promise of the Real paint a delicate backdrop of rolling, acoustic guitar, swaying drums, and sighing lap-steel. It's a song which slips under your radar and into your heart, a thing of seeming simplicity, yet so well put together that it is far from ordinary. Everything here stems from Lukas Nelson's unguarded song-writing. ‘We can hang on, our love will guide us, to where we belong. Empires will fall, everything dies, but don't worry baby, 'cause we'll be alright’. This plain appeal to universal humanity is echoed in the music, and it works.
The title-track is a jazzier affair, with ringing piano and reverberating vocals. The band create a readily identifiable warm palette that harks back to The Band, Cat Stevens, Elton John, and the whole 70s era of first-rate, genial songsters. “No Reason” further underscores Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s talent for making it seem easy. This softly shuffling number bounces and swings with a come-and-join-in chorus, ticking percussion and subtle, ear-catching melodies. “Wildest Dreams” hits a little harder, with a driving, Roy Orbison-type beat, sweeping you along down glittering avenues while the dust clings to your clothes. What is remarkable here is Lukas Nelson's consistency. He is an artist whose well-spring of ideas runs deep.
The stripped-back beginning of “Hand Me A Light” is equally affecting. With strummed guitar, gentle keys and restrained drums, Lukas Nelson effortlessly conveys meaning and heart into his words. ‘And if I wake up alone, I'll know where you've gone, and I'll drive to the city, find the ring that you pawned’. “More Than We Can Handle” jumps and skips playfully, with finger-picked guitar and walking bass. Closer, “Smile”, is a charming, laid-back number, showcasing the idiosyncratic strength of Lukas Nelson's delivery. From first to last, A Few Stars Apart is a remarkably powerful and eminently enjoyable set. (by Chris Wheatley)
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