Matthew and Gunnar Nelson feel the weight of their family’s history every time they tour with the Ricky Nelson Remembered show.
The twin sons of legendary ’60s teen idol Ricky Nelson and grandsons of TV personalities Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Matthew and Gunnar have been playing their father’s music in the show for a little over two years now. For the brothers, it’s a chance to educate audiences about their family’s long history in the entertainment business — the Nelsons are the only family to have three consecutive generations hit the Billboard Charts at No. 1 — while also having a good time doing it.
“It’s a good-feeling show — if you were talking about a song, man, it’s an up-tempo number, not a dirge,” Matthew Nelson said from his new home in Nashville, Tenn. “My dad played music that, frankly, had something to say, but he was also a music fan — it made him feel good. There’s no rocket science behind this.”
Conspiracy of ancestors
Along with the fun comes a lot of hard work, however. The duo feels a responsibility each night to get it right.
Ricky Nelson Remembered, with Matthew and Gunnar Nelson
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy
When: 8 p.m. Friday
How Much: $36, $32, $28, $20
More Info: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
“What I’ve learned in this process is that, frankly, it’s a whole lot bigger than me,” Matthew said. “When we’re onstage doing this particular show, this is a conspiracy of all our ancestors, onstage at the same time. I can’t really phone this one in — I don’t care how bad I feel, I’m representing everybody up there, and it kind of makes me feel differently. I call this the Rosetta Stone show — it’s where I begin, and we put enough of ourselves, our own personal stamp, into it.”
They first put together the show around the 25th anniversary of Ricky’s death on Dec. 31, 1985, in a plane crash north of Dallas. Since then, the brothers have continued to tour the show in both full band and duo setups — the duo version will be at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Friday night.
“It took a while for promoters to understand that the duo show is not a cut-down version of the show; it’s a different energy,” Matthew said. “For this particular show, this particular theater, I actually prefer it with just the two of us. For an outdoor festival, the band works better. But because of what this is, Gunnar and I make a pretty big noise with just the two of us.”
Initially, Gunnar and Matthew based the show’s set list on the one they found in Ricky’s guitar case — the set list Ricky performed on his final tour. Over the years, the show has expanded and features material from every era of Ricky’s career, to the teen idol hits like “Travelin’ Man,” to his late ’60s and ’70s country-inflected material.
“My father really had two very different phases — in the ’50s and ’60s he was a teen idol, and then in the ’60s and ’70s he had his country-rock band phase,” Matthew said. “Gunnar and I play these songs the way we remember him performing live. We’re not trying to sing like him, although you kind of hear, obviously, the genetic through-line.”
The show also integrates video of interviews with such rock ’n’ roll luminaries as Paul McCartney and John Fogerty about Ricky’s impact and music.
“We wanted to tell his story visually as well as musically, for those people who might not even know who our dad really is,” Matthew said. “As you can imagine, when you work on a project, some things kind of worked and some things were better replaced. At this point it’s pretty good, but I’m always one of those guys who wants to keep tweaking.”
Ricky was in the public eye from a young age, making his first appearance on his parents’ then-radio show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” in 1949. When the show made the transition to television in 1952, Ricky continued to appear; he made his musical debut in April of 1957 on the show performing his first single, “I’m Walkin’.”
As the ’60s wore on, Ricky continued to score hits. His final Top 40 single came with 1972’s “Garden Party,” but he continued to tour until his death — his plane was en route to a New Year’s Eve party in Dallas when it crashed, killing him, his girlfriend at the time and his entire band.
At around the same time, Gunnar and Matthew were kicking off their own successful music career with their eponymous band Nelson. In 1990, Nelson’s debut album “After the Rain” was released, spawning the No. 1 single “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.” The hard-rocking group continued to release albums through the ’90s; their latest, 2010’s “Lightning Strikes Twice,” is their first studio album since 1999’s “Life.”
“We put a lot of energy into Ricky Nelson Remembered, because we really wanted to establish it, even though we released a new Nelson album almost two years ago,” Matthew said.
“We’ve done some touring in China and England, and a few shows in the States, but we still felt we hadn’t really established [Ricky Nelson Remembered] as much as we wanted to. Now that it’s kind of there — and frankly, we’ve come around to where Nelson is considered classic rock at this point. We’ve gotten a lot of requests from promoters and other bands for that, so we’ll probably be spending a bit more time on that — but we also have some new stuff we’re working on that is completely different from all of it. So between those three projects, we’re pretty busy guys.”