On a cold, clear Sunday night in Waimea, under a bright moon, the Kahilu Theater was packed to capacity. Resplendent with Aloha shirts, cheek-to-jowl with leather fringe, denim, eveningwear, and turquoise, an informal survey quickly revealed that many in the crowd had never seen tonight’s featured artist Lukas Nelson perform live. Some had followed his career with The Promise of the Real (POTR) as the backing band for Neil Young, others were drawn by memories of seeing his famous father, Willie Nelson back in the day and some had been brought by enthusiastic friends. My guide for the evening was a nine-year champion of the Lukas Nelson circuit and filled me in on all the details while proselytizing to unwashed masses and choir alike before the show, a benefit for the Kahilu Theater, billed as “An Evening with Lukas Nelson.”
Casually attired and at ease in dark jeans and a peach and cream plaid shirt, on a sparsely populated stage, Lukas started the show by introducing his sole accompaniment this night, POTR bandmate, percussionist Tato Melgar with whom he shares a long and storied history.
Then Lukas retired to the piano for a solo set of two songs, his somber voice and the spare accompaniment capturing the audience’s attention out of the gate with a timeless classic composed in 1927 by Hoagy Carmichael and recorded by Willie Nelson on Stardust in 1978, “September Song,” ending in an extended instrumental solo, to the audience’s delight. Followed by “Make You Feel My Love” written by Bob Dylan for his 1997 album Time Out of Mind.
Joined once again by Tato, who sat on a cajón behind a chime and a set of bongos which would remain untouched. Armed only with his guitar, “Rainbow Bridge” hewn from the bedroom floorboards of the great Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home, and originally intended for B.B. King with whom Lukas enjoyed a close relationship, he continued to give homage to his influences citing his dad, his mom, blues, jazz, country, and rock.
Lukas launched into a rousing rendition of “Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself),” a song written and recorded by Bo Diddley in 1957, before drawing the crowd into the smooth bossa nova of “How Insensitive,” composed by Brazilian musician Antônio Carlos Jobim in the early 1960s, the Sinatra version informing Lukas’ repertoire via his mother’s love of the classic.
The capacity crowd needed no encouragement to jump in on the next song, written in 1964 by Roger Miller, “King of the Road.” Closer to home, the covers continued, with “Angel Flying Too Close to The Ground,’ a Willie Nelson standard that had this reporter reaching for her hanky.
Punctuated by the swishing of brushes on Tato’s cajón, the upbeat lead bars of “The Wind Cries Mary,” written by Hendrix himself in 1967, stretched and morphed into a keening ballad of longing and loss drawn from the depths of the Rainbow Bridge.
With The Beatle’s “Something” concluding the retrospective of influences, Lukas then segued into an apparently chronological look at his own body of work beginning with a tune he penned at 11, which was recorded by Willie, “You Were It.” The precocious chorus “And I am fine, All the pain is gone, I once had a heart, Now I have a song” meeting with hearty chuckles from concertgoers.
The intensity increased with “The Sound of Your Memory,” co-written by Lukas and Elizabeth Rainey and recorded by Willie featuring Lukas on the Album Heroes in 2012.
The theme of love, loss, and self-care continued with “Four Letter Word,” a song beginning “It’s only been two years and she already hates my dog,” followed by “Giving You Away” a song Lukas wrote when asked to play a father-daughter dance at a friend’s wedding and “(Forget About) Georgia,” a reference to another Hoagy Carmichael song, often associated with Ray Charles, “Georgia on My Mind,” in which Lukas bemoans his love for a woman of the same name as the song he performs with his dad and “Fool Me Once” the lyrics “I know the love that I deserve” a gentle reminder that one need not settle and “Set Me Down On A Cloud.”
A strong pro-Austin contingent was roused by “Just Outside of Austin,” Lukas’s ode to Spicewood Springs, Texas, where he spends time on his father’s ranch, a bucolic setting that inspired the lyrics “The music of the water on the rocks is getting louder As I walk towards whatever life may bring” the crowd in was strong support of fan-favorite “Let Go Of Your Plans,” which was often unaccompanied by guitar as Lukas’s emphatic gestures pulled focus to the fine warble of sincerity in his voice. “Look What I Found” gave way to “Music to My Eyes” penned in collaboration with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper for Grammy-nominated soundtrack to A Star Is Born in which POTR is featured as members of Cooper’s band.
With a nod to Neil Young, Lukas played “Heart of Gold” before invoking Willie’s tradition, inviting special guest Emmy Rose Russell of Nashville on stage to wrap the show with gospel songs “Amazing Grace/ Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Russell is the granddaughter of country music legend Loretta Lynn.
A standing ovation brought Lukas and Tato back to stage with some more political fare, a cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 grim masterpiece “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and the title track for Lukas’s new album Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) after which he gave autographs and posed for pictures with fans.
September Song | If I Fell | Make You Feel My Love | Before You Accuse Me | Insesatez (How Insensitive) | King Of The Road | Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground | The Wind Cries Mary | Shelter From The Storm | Something | You Were It | The Sound of Your Memory | Four Letter Word | Giving You Away | (Forget About) Georgia | Set Me Down On A Cloud | Just Outside of Austin | Let Go Of Your Plans | Look What I Found | Music To My Eyes | Heart of Gold | Amazing Grace/ Will The Circle Be Unbroken ( w/Emmy Rose Russell) | Find Yourself |
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) | Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) |
Cosmic Cowgirl hosts an eponymous show on KNKR, 96.1 in Hawi featuring Americana with Aloha, Y’all. Influenced by folk, jazz, and blues at the confluence of the cowboy & hippie cultures, characterized by rocked upcountry with roots in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Austin, Tx, at venues like the Armadillo world headquarters.
Photos: Steve Roby