As the son of one of the most iconic figures in country music, Lukas Nelson faces a colossal challenge as he attempts to establish an individual identity.
His mission is complicated by a pinched voice that’s almost indistinguishable from the one associated with hits like “Whiskey River” and “On the Road Again.”
Yet Thursday at Knuckleheads, Nelson proved to an audience of about 350 that he’s well on his way to becoming his own man. For more than two hours, the son of Willie Nelson performed a potent blend of Texas blues, outlaw country and classic rock. While his energetic set won over the crowd, it also exposed a few flaws. Still in his early 20s, Lucas Nelson has yet to formulate a signature sound.
Nelson obviously admires Jimi Hendrix. The weaker selections performed Thursday sounded like flimsy excuses for Nelson to play Hendrix-inspired guitar solos. The opening of Nelson’s “The Awakening,” for instance, is modeled on Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” A fine band consisting of a bassist, drummer and percussionist allowed Nelson to indulge in these flashy forays.
Another classic rock artist also informs Nelson’s music. A precautionary tale of romantic regret, his “Love is a Four Letter Word” is a clever rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Nelson’s unassuming pastiches of Dylan and Hendrix are derivative but satisfying.
Material in the tradition of his father was even better. “The Sound of Your Memory,” an exquisitely rendered ballad of heartbreak, sounded as if it belonged on his father’s 1975 album “Red Headed Stranger.”
Nelson also shares his father’s predilection for marijuana. A screwy speech during “The Joint” promoted the economic benefits of legalization. The audience relished such high jinks. Moments after Nelson sang the opening line of “Don’t Take Me Back” — “I was sitting in my daddy’s car with a joint in both of my hands” — the floor filled with sympathetic dancers.
Chatter in the audience threatened to drown the band as it played slow songs, but Nelson’s shameless showmanship made such lulls rare. He resembled a miniature version of LeBron James as he leaped and bounded across Knuckleheads’ outdoor stage. Frequent scissor kicks reminded the audience that Nelson was performing in his bare feet. He also used his mouth to pick guitar solos and was posing back-to-back with his bassist.
Such folly is the prerogative of young artists. Nelson will almost certainly tone down the silly theatrics and adolescent obsessions as he matures. Thursday’s outing indicated that Nelson may soon find a distinct approach that will render references to his father unnecessary.