His dark, glinting eyes are half-hidden by a cap and white tape circles a couple fingers, the byproduct of a particularly intense week on the dueling piano circuit.
While Brother Luke quietly sets up his keyboard and djembe drum in the back of a busy lounge in the Monte Carlo, he is also observing, gathering inspiration for future songs.
The room is full of out-of-towners visibly awestruck by their titillating environs. Brother Luke, a native Las Vegan, isn’t fazed by the casino facades or their flashy interiors, but he is endlessly fascinated by the people who visit them.
“I don’t just write about myself, I write about other people,” he says, looking around at the clusters of garrulous, hyper tourists. “Vegas lends itself to a lot of interesting observation points—the way that people act when they get here, how they pretend to be this person who they think they should be.”
The musician hasn’t succumbed to that particular spell. Even in times when he had little support or hope for success, he stayed true to himself and what he loves—music.
“I’ve gone through a lot of cycles where I was popular, then I wasn’t,” says Luke, whose real name is Shaun DeGraff. “But I just kept on playing. So, I think that’s why people consider me a true local.”
But Luke, who has been playing local venues since 2002 (he now performs every Thursday at Brand at the Monte Carlo and every Sunday at Mist at T.I., as well as at dueling piano bars throughout the week at New York-New York and Harrah’s), is looking beyond city limits.
He is currently searching for agents who can get him gigs out of state, so he can play regionally on the weekends.
“I’d like to have a hit song on the radio,” he concedes. “A song that lives longer than me; I’ll know that when I die, it’s going to keep going.”
The singer-songwriter, who has been stroking the black-and-whites of both the piano and keyboard since he was 12, writes heartfelt lyrics and pairs them with a fusion of earthy classic blues and progressive electronic beats; what he calls “soul with electro-pop.” While tonight’s performance is acoustic, he often incorporates technology in his productions and uses looping to plump up his one-man-band sound.
Luke has produced three albums in four years, including In My Room, which won Best Modern Rock Album in 2007, beating 10,000 submissions; he was also handpicked out of 48,000 aspiring musicians as “Best New Artist” two years in a row by Just Plain Folks, which calls itself “the world’s largest grassroots music organization.”
Without the help of managers or labels, Luke has managed to sell over 6,000 copies and 24,000 downloads worldwide. He is thinking about starting his own label and is looking for grassroots sponsors.
He starts off his set with a series of crowd-pleasing covers: Sublime, Jason Mraz, TuPac, Dave Matthews, Oasis. “He’s really good,” comment two businessmen from New York who are seconded by a couple from San Diego.
After the crowded bar has been sufficiently buttered up, singing wholeheartedly along to well-known classics, Brother Luke humbly introduces a couple originals, and asks people to pick up the CDs he has scattered around on the tables.
“Wasted, just trying to get through the day/Dreaming, the music keeps me hanging on/Singing, until the final beat is gone/Can’t stop now, I’m in too deep/Feel the brush of ecstasy … Why do I keep hanging on?”
Luke’s voice is rich, pitch-perfect and powerful. The notes come spilling from his fingers like a tonal waterfall.
“As I got more in touch with my Native American side, I learned they would address the assigned storyteller of the tribe as ‘brother,’ like ‘Brother Lightfoot,’” says Luke about how he came up with his moniker. “I realized that music is basically storytelling in essence… It’s taking something simple and making it powerful.”
His inspirations are varied – “My friend will say a phrase,” he muses, “or I’ll notice something, like this little pink thing.” He points to the top of my underwear, peeking out from my jeans (blush). But there is one theme that will always fuel music, whether through the primal beat of the drum or the digitized beat of the Mac.
I ask him what the painfully poignant “Had Me at Goodbye” is about, though I’m pretty sure I already know the answer.
“Everyone has a girl who you think is the one,” says Luke as sadness suddenly glimmers into his profound eyes and his tall and sturdy frame slightly sags. “She said ‘You’re the one,’ and then she changed her mind.”