When Neil Young fan Bradley Cooper went to the Desert Trip in 2016, he stumbled upon inspiration.
The music festival’s lineup also included Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, and Roger Waters — but it was the young, long-haired guitar virtuoso holding his own with Young that caught Cooper’s eye.
Soon, the actor and director was tapping Lukas Nelson to be his “authenticity consultant” for his character Jackson Maine in what would become the Oscar-nominated “A Star Is Born.”
Nelson showed Cooper the ropes, worked with costar Lady Gaga, co-wrote songs for and co-produced the blockbuster’s soundtrack. And yes, that’s Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real rocking in the movie as Maine’s backing band.
Cooper isn’t alone in noticing something special about Nelson — formerly known as “Willie’s son” — and his band. Their star is on the rise.
Now one of Young’s regular touring bands, Promise of the Real backed the singer and Bob Dylan in their much-hyped duets in Hyde Park, London, and Kilkenny, Ireland, this summer. The Rolling Stones tapped the band to open for them on some of their recent dates. So have the Who. This weekend, they’ll open Zac Brown Band’s two shows at Fenway Park.
When we reach the band, they’re on the tour bus — home away from home these days — on their way to a gig in the Hamptons. Nelson sounds a bit tired, and who can blame him? (Asked about their recent date at the Newport Folk Festival, he says, “It’s a blur. It’s all a blur.”) His band plays about 250 shows a year, and they’ve earned a reputation for leaving it all onstage.
It was, after all, Nelson’s crackling energy that caught Cooper’s eye.
“We’re touring constantly. It’s just kind of a lifestyle we have. We prefer it that way,” says Nelson, 30, and the line smacks of his dad’s sentiments in “On the Road Again.”
“You see a new thing every day,” he says. “Or at least a new hotel.”
Nelson and Promise of the Real — bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz — have studied at the feet of Young and Crazy Horse. Even the band’s name is inspired by Young’s lyrics from 1974’s “Walk On.”
Sonically, they’re an amalgam of their heroes: the thwacking drums and rangy, whining guitar of Young and Crazy Horse. Nelson’s twangy, taut vocals channel Tom Petty, though at times he sounds just like his dad. (Check YouTube for his cover of “My Own Peculiar Way”.)
The title of their new album, “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden),” might sound like an homage to John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream,” when Prine sings “Blow up your TV/ Throw away your paper/ Go to the country, build you a home/ Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches/ Try an’ find Jesus on your own.”
But when asked about a connection, Nelson says: “Oh! No, I didn’t know he had one like that. But that makes sense because I feel like he’s my spirit animal, so there you go.”
While Prine’s song advocates living off the grid, Nelson’s is a “call to action.”
“It’s an album designed to connect people and encourage people to turn off [their] phones and TVs for a second and go out and be part of their communities and get to know their neighbors. And vote. And actually do things, instead of watching the news and sitting around doing nothing,” he says. “Do something. But when I say that, I’m talking to myself. That’s how I am with all my songs. I can turn them around and point them at me.”
When we ask to talk to another band member on the bus, Nelson says: “Hold on, let me see if anybody’s awake.”
McCormick is up.
Of the band’s recent rise, he says “it’s been a crazy huge wave, mainly in thanks to Uncle Neil.”
“The earliest music that I heard was Neil Young. The first guitar song I learned was ‘Needle and the Damage Done,’ ” McCormick says. “So to be onstage and playing those songs — sometimes I close my eyes and I’ll be a little kid in my dad’s truck, and I open my eyes and I’m onstage actually singing those songs. It’s emotional for me sometimes because my dad passed away about seven or eight years [ago], and he didn’t get to see this.”
Being Young’s bassist is “incredible. It’s a little like walking a tightrope musically, for me. Never knowing what we’re going to play onstage. It makes it interesting and sometimes stressful,” he says. “I gotta know over 200 songs at any moment.”
Nelson was born on Christmas Day 1988, in Austin, Texas, and grew up in Hawaii. The longtime surfer wrote his first song, “You Were It,” around age 11. Dad Willie recorded it on his 2004 album, “It Always Will Be.”
“I was sitting in the school bus and this song started playing in my head and I realized nobody had written it yet,” he says.
Willie “loved it. He thought it was beautiful and that gave me confidence to keep writing.”
His pig-tailed, pot-smoking legend of a dad, 86 and still rocking, is one of his heroes. That’s hard to miss in conversation. “Every moment I’m with him is my favorite moment,” Nelson says.
“He inspired me, and he never pushed me into [guitar], he just sort of lived the life he was living and that became the way I lived. And I’m grateful for it because a lot of people have been touched in a good way by him being on this planet. And one can only hope that that would be your legacy.”
Willie — along with Young, Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Shooter Jennings, brother Micah Nelson, and more — guest star on POTR’s new album.
Nelson’s favorite moment of life on the road so far — and this is a guy who shared a bill with a Beatle at Desert Trip — involves family: “The one best time I ever had out there playing music was when Dad came to join us with Neil when we were out in Italy. He came onstage and we all sang together. Dad and my mom and my brother — my whole family was there.
“Music has brought us together” as a family, says the guitarist, who joined his dad’s band as a teenager. “I knew if I started to play music and I really got good at it, then I could always kinda hang around — we’d always have a reason to be around each other. Because I knew he wouldn’t quit the road.”