Something seems to have happened to Evan Dando since I last saw him two years ago touring behind the eponymous new Lemonheads record. After a nine year recording absence, Dando seemed like a new man with a great new record, backed by members of the seminal punk band The Descendents, and put on one hell of a good show. He was still the eternally youthful golden boy, with good looks that years of hardened drug abuse hadn’t tarnished. The 2007 show, at Chicago’s Double Door, was a blitzkrieg of old and new material, performed with a verve and immediacy that transformed classics like “It’s a Shame About Ray” and “Into Your Arms” from wistful throwbacks into something fresh and vital. The performance was raw, with Dando’s voice stripped bare for solo acoustic numbers, while the band charged through the set at a fevered pitch. Two years later, I was pumped for the Lemonheads two-night stand at Chicago’s Abbey Pub.
Unfortunately, there were signs of trouble before the show even started. A torrential summer downpour meant I was soaked by the time I walked through the doors. Then, through some snafu, I was not on the guest list. There was also the problem of the “new” Lemonheads album, Varshons, a ramshackle collection of obscure cover songs, running the inexplicable gamut from G.G. Allin to the Linda Perry penned song “Beautiful” made famous by Christina Aguilera. Varshons, while technically proficient, just doesn’t make creative or logistical sense, especially after the brilliant return of the last Lemonheads record. My optimism was ultimately shattered by the time Dando and the new band unceremoniously crept onto stage just a shade before midnight.
Dando looked haggard, complete with ripped jeans and eyes that seemed distant and drugged. The latest incarnation of the Lemonheads was complete with two kids on rhythm guitar and bass who looked like they had been plucked from a high school talent show, and performed as such. Both looked scared to death and were barely prepared as Dando, without any introduction, launched into “Down About It”, from the third Lemonheads album Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The venue, filled a quarter to capacity, was composed of thirtysomethings who seemed either confused, drunk, or both. The crowd was littered with women who obviously still carried teenaged Dando crushes from the nineties, and they loudly mangled lyrics while I struggled to hear Dando half heartedly sing his own. The night didn’t get much better as the band dutifully performed pretty much every song from the Atlantic release The Best of The Lemonheads. With bizarre breaks between songs with Dando turning his back to the crowd, the band mostly scratched their heads, apparently too nervous to smile or address the crowd.
While it’s hard to complain about the setlist, with some of my all time favorites—“If I Could Talk” and “Confetti”, for example—peppered throughout, the songs were performed mechanically, with Dando’s gaze fixed on the ceiling. The set was literally a Best Of, with maybe one song from Varshons performed acoustically that I didn’t recognize. It was as if Dando cruised by a high school, threw the backing band in a van, tossed them a Best Of CD and said, “learn this.” The whole set was just over an hour long, and after “Rudderless” the band just sort of walked offstage slowly. Dando waved, announcing that he would be signing autographs at the merch table. Five minutes later, after waiting in line to get my poster signed, Dando was gone. That was it, and I walked back out into the rain, feeling like I was in a John Cusack movie, a brokenhearted man not jilted by a woman, but by a man named Evan Dando.