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Concert Review: Lukas Nelson in Tucson 2024

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The new wave met the old guard earlier this month as Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, captivated a packed house in Tucson. The 35-year-old Nelson has been playing music professionally since 2008, but it is performances like this that have liberated Lukas from his father’s shadow.   

Downtown Tucson’s historic Rialto Theatre hosted Nelson and his phenomenal band, Promise of the Real, on March 11. Lukas + POTR have been on the road since last year in support of their latest album, “Sticks and Stones”. The Tucson date is one of the last on the western leg of a tour that has spanned both coasts, as well as Canada. The album’s lead single, “More Than Friends” featuring reigning entertainer of the year Lainey Wilson, has just been nominated for a 2024 CMT award.  

Lukas + POTR

With a unique style self-described as “country soul funk”, Lukas represents a kind of up-and-coming old timer. His songs reflect the sincerity of an older performer while he plays with a beautiful frenetic creativity. It is plain to see he is more than comfortable on stage. There is a simple explanation for this, it is all he’s ever known. As Nelson states, “We’d always travel with dad. The only times we weren’t traveling were when we were in school”. But make no mistake, just because Willie Nelson happens to be his father, this is not your father’s Willie Nelson concert.

Chill vibes and exceptional music marked the order of the day as Lukas and the boys took the stage in the desert. The show is decidedly a showcase for the new album, of which Nelson wrote all 12 songs. Lukas says of his songwriting, “I’m writing for my show. I’m writing for my audience and I’m thinking about my audience when I write a song.” Fittingly then the show kicks off with the first track from the new album, “Sticks and Stones”.

The rollicking title track is the perfect tone setter for the night. The five-piece band is clearly a tight configuration, which features Lukas as lead singer and lead guitar. Nelson refers to the current release as, “the most country record I’ve ever made”. Next up in the set is probably the most country song on the record. “Every Time I Drink” is good ole’ fashioned down-home music that could have easily been a part of the Outlaw lineup in the 1970s. The number not only increases the audience energy, but it also showcases the range of Nelson’s strong vocals.

After a brief introduction, Lukas keeps the show moving at a brisk pace. Some highlights include the number “Fool Me Once” during which the band slipped into The Beatles’ “Get Back”. As Lukas sang the verse concerning “Tucson, Arizona”, it resulted in one of the best crowd responses of the night.

Much to the delight of the longer tenured fans, the band performed some older cuts. Tunes such as “Just Outside of Austin”, “Forget About Georgia”, and “Carolina”. Nelson’s set also displays the eclectic spectrum of his influences. “Leave ’em Behind” in particular, which exudes the unmistakable feel of early Neil Young. This makes sense considering POTR was Young’s touring and studio band from 2015 to 2019. On this night, “Leave ’em Behind” doesn’t leave ‘em disappointed, showcasing Lukas’ gritty guitar chops as he switches from acoustic to electric mid song. 

The next portion of the show continues the trend of Nelson paying homage to his musical forefathers. While the rest of the band takes a break, Lukas takes up his acoustic guitar. After relating that he spoke to a “good friend” yesterday, Lukas wants to do a number for him. The good friend was Kris Kristofferson, and the tune is “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. After a pleasing version of the Kristofferson classic, Nelson announced that he would now like to do a song from his other favorite songwriter. Lukas then covers his dad’s iconic tune, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”…and it never sounded better!

Just for good measure, Nelson doubled-down the nostalgia with a spirited cover of “King of the Road” by the great Roger Miller. Then, as if Lukas hadn’t already proven his musical versatility, he took a seat at the piano. After running through a solid version of his 2021 hit “A Few Stars Apart”, he stunned the crowd with an epic rock classic. Still seated behind the keys, Lukas put together a searing rendition of “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie. Absolutely one of the performances of the night. Totally unexpected and wonderfully executed.  

The show on March 11th marked a full circle moment for Lukas, as well as this reviewer.  It was at a 2004 Willie Nelson concert at the TCC Music Hall that I first encountered Lukas, playing rhythm guitar in his father’s band. He was a skinny lad of 15 but the talent was palpable. Especially after a gutsy cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood”. Now, 20 years later, the scrawny kid has been replaced by a seasoned bandleader. An enthralling entertainer now stands where a boy once did. Lukas Nelson is all grown up…and he may be one of the most dynamic performers working today.

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