By Dave Gil de Rubio
When Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real (POTR) recorded Sticks and Stones, the outfit’s eighth studio album, it was for a two-fold purpose—to create songs that would be just as easy to play live, and to enable Nelson to tap into his country music roots. The finished outcome has already yielded musical fruit, forming the basis of his current tour’s live set.
“I wanted to write an album that featured a lot of songs that I’d be happy to play live, which I think I accomplished,” Nelson said. “The whole record is great to be able to put into the live set, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Recorded over the span of three to four days last year, the dozen songs that make up Sticks and Stones are a self-described batch of “country soul funk” infused with a thick sense of humor.
There’s plenty to like, ranging from the Lainey Wilson hook-up duet “More Than Friends” that finds the duo being the equivalent of a honky-tonk Elton John and Kiki Dee, to “Wrong House,” a double-time shuffle tale of someone coming off a psychedelic trip and winding up in a neighbor’s home.
Elsewhere, Nelson & POTR toss in a kitchen sink’s worth of rollicking piano runs, honking guitar riffs and a gospel chorus into “Every Time I Drink,” which sets the mood for the narrator’s attempt to navigate heartbreak. The twangiest jam is “Icarus,” a call-and-response between Nelson’s vocals and some Don Rich-flavored riffing.
It’s all the more impressive given that Sticks and Stones is Nelson’s maiden voyage at producing, something he’d only previously done while working with Bradley Cooper on the 2018 remake of A Star is Born, a film project where Nelson was hired as an authenticity consultant (more on that later).
“This is the first time I’ve taken the reins with the band and worked on the music,” Nelson said. “I think it’s great because it comes more purely to who we are and we’re able to recreate it live, which is the whole point.”
While Lukas Nelson & POTR have been recording and touring for 15 years, the musical apprenticeship they’ve served starts with Willie Nelson being the 30-something musician’s father. But Lukas Nelson and his crew have forged their own path.
While hitting the road with the “Red Headed Stranger” early on got the ball rolling, Nelson & POTR spent plenty of time sharing stages with Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and even spent several years serving as Neil Young’s back-up band for a series of albums and tours. Suffice it to say, Nelson sopped up whatever wisdom he could from these experiences.
“It was a sort of great master class in learning how to be a band,” he said. “What’s great about it is that the experiences we’ve had with the people we’ve played with before, we can bring to our generation. I’m 34 years old, so those guys are a lot older than me. I play to a different crowd right now.”
When pushed to see what insights he may have picked up from his old man, Nelson is quick to point out that he’s a musical sponge regardless of who he may be around.
“I watch everybody that I learn from,” he said. “Whether they’re young guys like Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan. I watch those guys. I watch Sturgill [Simpson] and Nathaniel Rateliff. I watch Norah Jones and I watch Taylor Swift or Adele. These people I watch.”
Having first picked up a guitar when he was about 11, Nelson’s musical passion and curiosity served him well and led to opportunities like dipping his toe into the movie-making world with Cooper. Part of his responsibilities as an authenticity consultant led to Nelson co-producing the music, co-writing songs with Lady Gaga and appearing with POTR in A Star Is Born as Cooper’s band.
In addition to Nelson winning a BAFTA Award for Best Original Music and a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, it’s an experience the young singer-songwriter wouldn’t mind having again.
“It was great working with Bradley and writing songs for the film,” he said. “I was working with him in terms of helping him sing and look the part—helping him look like he was playing the guitar the right way and making sure it seemed authentic, which I think he did a great job doing. It was great, and I’d be happy to do more [of that] in the future.”
For now, the road beckons for Nelson and his crew of road dogs. And given how he and POTR hit all the marks of having the studio material translate to the stage, he promises fans won’t be disappointed when they come out to see the boys play.
“Fans can expect a show that’s a journey, and hopefully a really joyful experience with lots of energy and excitement,” he said.
Lukas Nelson & POTR appear at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on Saturday, Feb. 24, 8pm. Information and ticket links at lutherburbankcenter.org/event/lukas-nelson24/.