Lukas Nelson, 29, was born with a predisposition — a habit to upstage any other acts on a concert bill. He did it back in September 2017 at Pittsburgh’s edition of Farm Aid as a young standout performer among musical vets like Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp.
The Southern rocker was on stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival June 6 with his band, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real covering a Paul Simon fan-favorite, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and left earlier performances in the dust. Emphasizing a bongo beat and calypso-type accompaniment, it was a change from the usual set.
Yet the crowd loved it as he broke into an intense dance. After playing the Paul Simon song and a hazy rendition of his album opener, “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” it looked like the set was over.
But before anyone could bend down to strap their boots, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real revved into “Start to Go” featuring Nelson digging into the six strings of his guitar.
Some habits are hard to break.
Son of country uber-star Willie Nelson and protege of Neil Young, Nelson returned to perform in Pittsburgh after a nine-month gap. While being akin to country royalty, Nelson has led his own career with his Los Angeles-formed band Promise of the Real since 2008.
Nelson and company kicked off things with “Entirely Different Stars,” an unreleased Southern rock song about barrelling through the cosmos — written after watching “Rick and Morty.”
The content of the song was entirely different from the rest of Nelson’s discography (he usually doesn’t sing about television shows), but what wasn’t different was the high-voltage emotion that poured from his Gibson Les Paul. Each Promise of the Real song was served with a compelling guitar solo and “Entirely Different Stars” was no exception.
Nelson snatched the mic and tossed his cowboy hat to a roadie. As he inched up to the edge of the stage, his blond hair flipped through the air as his solo came to an end. He looked like a young Gregg Allman that night on stage.
Nelson and his band slowed down the tunes with their next song — but not for very long.
“Die Alone” was a slow-burning song that escalated when drummer Anthony LoGerfo slammed on the snares as Nelson howled, “Ain’t handing nobody roses / And I ain’t gonna die alone.”
“Here’s an oldie, but a goodie,” Nelson said, introducing the song, “Little Girl” — a deep cut from his 2014 LP, “Sampler.” In each song, Nelson maintained vocals soaked with a country flavor — reminiscent of his father.
He kept a focused facial expression for the majority of the set, even as he slid his fingers down the guitar neck to emit a dog whistle-like screech — prompting smiles and hooting from spectators. “Something Real” featured some of Nelson’s most unrestrained guitar playing, using an addictive chord progression. It’s Nelson’s way of keeping the sweet guitar tone with fans even after heading home.
“Georgia on My Mind,” originally made famous by Ray Charles, is a standard song that Papa Nelson practically adopted as his own, as it is performed frequently during live sets. Most people know the lyrics to “that old sweet song” and Georgia’s ears have been ringing for nearly 60 years.
“Tell it to me — come on,” a lady yelled from the crowd during the fragile ballad.
Nelson later transitioned into “(Forget About) Georgia,” a song that rejects the dreamy romanticism stated in the original standard, “Georgia on My Mind.” Nelson said he wrote it after dating a girl named Georgia and in response to his father, who kept the old standard on his setlist, despite his son’s painful breakup.
“Ray Charles is singing her name like rain on my window,” Nelson sang. “I want to release her, but I can’t begin to know how.”
According to the lyrics, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real will struggle to forget about Georgia, but Three Rivers Arts Festival won’t let this new, tearful classic slip its mind.