It’s 1992 all over again. The Lemonheads played a sold out show at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on Wednesday night, the conceit being a run through It’s a Shame About Ray – the breakout album which put Lemon-leader Evan Dando’s lustrous locks squarely in the hearts and minds of neophyte hipsters from sea to shining sea. The gig was the first of a lengthy tour which sees the band give its regards to the Deep South and Midwest, flirt with the West Coast and ultimately return to the NYC-metropolitan area for a pair of mid-March shows at Hoboken’s legendary venue, Maxwell’s.
I say “band” despite the common knowledge that the Lemonheads have effectively served as a Dando solo venture since even before It’s a Shame About Ray introduced Generation X to timeless pop songwriting, albeit viewed through a grimy slacker lens. Anyway, finding offense in Dando touring as the Lemonheads is an absurd notion, since even in the busiest of times he never had the same musicians around him for more than a couple of years at best. The Lemonheads, for better or worse, are all about Evan Dando.
The guys on stage with Dando at the Knitting Factory, and in all likelihood the entirety of the tour to follow, sound great. The drums are sometimes overly flashy for performances which otherwise stick close to the original arrangements, but that’s a minor quibble at best. What’s perhaps most apparent on the stage with the current incarnation of the Lemonheads is this: Everyone is clearly having a very good time. And as long as you’re taking a trip through the past, you might as well enjoy it.
Evan Dando’s past is nothing if not notorious, an often grim bacchanalia of drugs, excess and hanging out with the likes of Oasis and Courtney Love. That he survived at all would be worthy of note on its own, but the sobering truth is that he’s not only survived, but he still looks fantastic. This superhero has been through wringer after wringer and still looks as though he stepped off a surfboard and onto the stage. He’s in trim fighting shape, still has a full head of messy, sexy hair and is still the handsomest guy in any room he’ll ever enter. For those of us who awake looking like a pile of broken dreams after a night where, “Okay, but just one more beer” is the exception rather than the norm, this will either come as welcome news or as sure a sign as any that life just isn’t fair.
But we want the Evan Dando we remember from back when we first fell for the scamp, and if he’s had to arrange some sort of Picture of Dorian Gray deal with the devil to preserve that, well that’s cool with us. Whatever he’s done, its working. I didn’t have to squint my eyes and pretend or con myself or whatever, because the perfectly disheveled guy on stage looks like he stepped out of a time machine from one of those extremely ‘90s videos the band made, right down to the same guitar, the same t-shirt, the same knowing smirk. He’s also come armed with the same songs, which in case it’s been a while since you’ve heard them, are bona fide classics.
The first sign of trouble for the original Lemonheads, or so the legend goes, was partly ego-based, but perhaps more tellingly was down to the fact that Dando’s growth as a songwriter was pushing him into the spotlight. It’s why the Lemonheads can tour It’s a Shame About Ray and from stem to stern, there’s no waste, no moment where the concept falls flat. Okay, so the album clocks in at just shy of thirty minutes, but the songs are so perfectly written, so beautifully wrought that nothing is inessential.
But before the full-band run through the album, Dando hits the stage for a brisk run through a few songs on acoustic guitar, beginning with “Being Around” from Come on Feel the Lemonheads, as charming a song with the word “booger” in it as you’re ever likely to hear. Dando performed solo again after the sequential run through It’s a Shame About Ray, as well, playing songs of his own as well as the odd cover, such as “Streets of Baltimore”, a tune most closely associated with the late Gram Parsons.
Whether the night’s most effective sing-a-long strikes the same chord on the road remains to be seen. “Frank Mills”, the song from the musical Hair which closes It’s a Shame About Ray, is rife with local references: “He lives in Brooklyn somewhere” got a predictably huge cheer, as did Dando wryly observing mid-song that the Waverly was now called the IFC Center.
The crowd was largely comprised of fans who remember what the Lemonheads sounded like when “college rock” morphed into “alternative rock”, but that’s hardly a prerequisite for attending a Lemonheads show. The songs are truly timeless, and if Dando is going to keep delivering them with geniality, good humor and gusto, it’s worth putting away your CD’s for the night and enjoying them live.