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Lukas Nelson lives up to his Promise of the Real at ACL Fest

Peter Blackstock

Not many artists at ACL Fest this year have more expectations heaped upon them than Lukas Nelson, who’s spent much of the past two years touring and recording with Neil Young. There’s also that small matter of his last name: Yes, he’s Willie’s son. As if that weren’t enough, the guy named his band Promise of the Real.

On Friday afternoon at the Miller Lite Stage, Nelson and his band delivered with an hour of music that was Real indeed: passionate and tuneful, sometimes softly charming and at other times ferociously rocking. Whatever advantages his family ties brought him early on, Nelson is now showing that his band stands out entirely on the strength of its music.

Nelson set the tone with a sterling solo-acoustic rendition of “Just Outside of Austin,” a beautiful song from the band’s new self-titled album. “The music of the water on the rocks is getting louder as I walk toward whatever life may bring,” Nelson sang in a clear, sweet voice that’s hard not to compare to his father’s. If the song’s melody hews rather close to John Hartford’s classic “Gentle on My Mind,” that’s not a bad thing; spilling out of the speakers as the sun started to set, it brought back vibes of circa-1970 country music, from around the time Lukas’ father moved to Austin.

Gears quickly shifted toward the present when Nelson’s four Promise of the Real bandmates joined him onstage. At times reminiscent of The Band’s broad-based roots-rock amalgamation, the group brought its past jam-band influences into tighter focus on new-album highlights including “Runnin’ Shine,” “Die Alone,” “Set Me Down on a Cloud” and “Forget About Georgia.” They also played “Something Real” from their previous album, but mostly this set was a showcase for the new stuff, which showed that their time on the road with Young has upped the band’s game in terms of both songwriting and live performance.

Closing their set, Nelson prefaced the final tune by saying, “We’d just like to say thank you to this guy for the love of music he’s given us.” Pops? Neil? Nope, the song that followed was “American Girl,” delivered with all the raw rock ‘n’ roll fervor that a band led by a 28-year-old fireband could let loose. It was a perfect capper. “Thank you, Tom Petty,” Nelson said at the end, smiling as he and his bandmates took a bow.

They’ll be back at the fest next weekend, returning after a quick jaunt out to San Francisco tomorrow for the Hardly Strictly Festival. There’s two more opportunities to catch them next week: Wednesday, Oct. 11, at Antone’s for an official ACL Fest Late Night Show, and Thursday, Oct. 12, at Waterloo Records.