Deciding on a birthday present for Dad can be tough. Especially if he’s Willie Nelson.
At age 11, Lukas Nelson opted to ask his famous father what he wanted. “Learn how to play guitar,” Willie said.
And Lukas did. Fast.
Three years later, father asked son to join his Family Band. Lukas, now 22, has been touring with Willie pretty much ever since.
“I love being with my dad,” he said by phone from a tour stop in Lafayette, La. “On the road is really the only chance to be with him.”
He also has his own band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, which was a hit during a Spokane appearance at Pig Out in the Park in 2009.
They return to town for a show tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater, with opening act The Reflectacles – led by another of Willie’s sons, Micah.
In addition to becoming an ace guitarist like his pop with a taste and talent for jazz, country, blues and rock, Lukas excels at writing deftly detailed lyrics that incorporate myriad musical styles.
Soon after picking up that first guitar, the 11-year-old penned “You Were It.” He played it for Dad’s approval.
“That’s some good songwriting,” said the author of such American classics as “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls” and “On the Road Again.”
Lukas’ “You Were It” – a bitter breakup ballad that recalls Dad’s gripping, early 1960s work – appears on Willie’s well-received 2004 album “It Always Will Be.”
“I was very happy, I was stoked when he recorded it,” Lukas said. “It made me feel like I could do this.”
Lukas began emerging from his father’s long shadow during the 2009 Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan tour, when the latter would invite the youngster on stage. He would play guitar on Dylan’s groundbreaking epic “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower” (famously covered by Hendrix) and several others.
According to Lukas, Dylan offered him a full-time gig, but he politely declined to focus on his burgeoning solo career and backing his father.
“It was really, really cool playing with him,” Lukas said. “Dylan has always been a distant mentor to me and I really look up to him.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real recently issued its debut album, featuring everything from searing Texas-style blues to vintage country and fiery folk-rock.
Lukas’ singing has a similar nasal, behind-the-beat quality as his dad’s. But it never sounds like he’s aping one of the most well-known and distinctive vocalists alive – even when they duet on a couple of numbers.
In addition to nine smart originals, Lukas delivers a Jimi Hendrix mini-medley of the rarities “Pali Gap” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).”
He also covers the Neil Young nugget “L.A.,” culled from the rock legend’s 1973 live album “Time Fades Away.” The song skillfully uses sneering sarcasm in capturing the rocky relationship so many have with La La Land.
“I love Neil,” Lukas said. “I think he’s the best. And his song ‘L.A.’ is just a great homage to the city.”
After growing up primarily on Maui while also spending time in Austin, Texas, Lukas studied music at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
After he dropped out, his parents cut him off. He busked on the Venice boardwalk and the promenade in Santa Monica, couch-surfing and living out of his car for a year.
“I couldn’t have called my father for money because it was not the right thing to do, not the right thing for me,” Lukas said. “I don’t need that.
“I was eating and had a roof over my head – even if it was a car. … I didn’t mind. I was playing music and writing a lot. I don’t need much.”
Since releasing “Promise of the Real,” Lukas and his band have toured on their own as well as opened for Willie, B.B. King, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler and Toots & the Maytals, among others.
On Jan. 7, Lukas appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He and his band performed “Four Letter Word,” a rollicking kiss-off to committed relationships that serves as the opening cut on “Promise of the Real.”
When he opens shows for his father, the crowd is not always in the mood for hearing something new.
“My dad has crazy good fans,” Lukas said. “And sometimes we’re up there and they’re yelling, ‘Where’s Willie?’
“It gets to me, but I try and be professional. It doesn’t bother me that much. It used to bother me more.
“At least now I know that at least some people there enjoy what we’re doing.”
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