Evan Dando is drunk. No. Make that wasted. He ambles on stage, welcomes us with a slurred “Hello Susquehanna,” and berates a roadie for putting his guitar strap on the wrong way. After removing it himself and fixing it twice, it’s the same as it was when he first put it on. Then, Dippy Dando, alterna-god of yore, locks still flowing and jaw still jutting, steps up to the microphone and opens with “Goodnight and Welcome.” Mumbling something about tequila, he proceeds to sing “Happy Birthday” to no one in particular. This, you could say, is a bad omen.
But at least he’s here. There were times when Dando didn’t turn up at all. I was at Glastonbury in 1995, waiting in the acoustic tent for the Lemonheads lead singer to arrive. He did, eventually, but hours late, long after I had left, and only to be booed right back off the stage. The incident was the culmination of Dando’s addictions, most notably the crack abuse that led to a momentary loss of his voice and, more notably, the disappearance of the two Australian bandmates (Nic Dalton and Dave Ryan) that played with him in the Lemonheads’ early-‘90s heyday. Like Pete Doherty’s spirit father, Dando did drugs, dug ladies, and paid more attention to his persona than his talent. It was a shame, because, despite early career hiccups and a few clunkers, he was capable of crafting bona–fide, classic pop songs.
Tonight, Philadelphia’s North Star Bar is full. Full of those who’ve followed Dando through his ups and downs, his redemptive recovery, his marriage and subsequent solo album—all of which paved the way for this, a full Lemonheads reunion tour. Well, sort of: Dalton and Ryan are nowhere to be seen, and neither is anyone associated with the original Lemonheads. Heck, even Karl Alvarez and Bill Stevenson of the Descendants, the accompanists on Dando’s recent release The Lemonheads, are AWOL. Instead, the rhythm section of Bloomington band the Pieces is backing Dando, a fact which, coupled with the copious amount of alcohol Dando’s imbued, is reason for some apprehension.
So, you can imagine everyone’s surprise when Dando and band immediately break into “Confetti” from It’s A Shame About Ray with a crispness usually reserved for fine German Rieslings. It’s soon followed by “Black Gown,” from their latest release, a song which sounds better live than recorded. Despite the drunkenness and a discernible lack of backing vocals, the show swaggers forward with Dando, bedecked in jeans and a red v-neck, offering up between-song banter (on Philadelphia: “Where else can you find meat and cheese put together so beautifully?”) and seemingly choosing the set as he goes.
That a song such as “Great Big No,” with its semi-a cappella opening refrain, still sounds urgent today is testament to Dando’s skill as a songwriter. The issue, though, is his inconsistency, an affliction that has affected him more than most songwriters. For every “Ride With Me,” we’re treated to a winsome “It’s About Time.” The fact that some of the Lemonheads’ best songs were written in collaboration (most notably with Smudge’s Tom Morgan) or by others (the Nic Dalton-penned “Kitchen”) emphasizes Dando’s irreproachable appeal as performer and not a Tin Pan Alley artist. Dando, perhaps befitting his Hollywood looks, manages to make everything his own. He’s a crooner in the old-time sense, singing to you alone, even when he’s too drunk to remember the words.
A couple of songs simply start and stop: Dando, lying on the floor with a roadie holding the microphone down to him, will suddenly declare it done. A shout for “Luka” is met with a response that the band hasn’t rehearsed it. They attempt it anyway, Dando, exaggerating his chord changes for the bass player’s benefit. “Hate You Friends” is also thrown into the seemingly ‘anything goes’ set. Even the singer’s unabashed shame for “Mrs. Robinson” (the begrudgingly recorded cover that accompanied the DVD re-release of The Graduate) is shucked. Dando uses his disdain to turn it into a karaoke catastrophe, pulling up an unsuspecting audience member to sing lead. As the band ploughs through the tune, the unsuspecting audience member digs himself a trough, forgetting the words, and eventually tunnels into the chorus two beats early. Dando, as one may expect, loves it, whispering into the guy’s ear and posing for photos. As the last notes ring out, he returns to the microphone to proclaim: “Mother fucker, I hate that song.”
Two tunes later, everyone gets a chance to belt out the words as “My Drug Buddy” is turned into a campfire sing-along. “Bit Part” keeps the audience interaction afloat with us taking on the Juliana Hatfield role. In a short acoustic set thrown in three-quarters of the way through, Dando dips into his impressive back catalogue and offers a few covers. And all of a sudden, in the middle of a well-received “Divan,” it feels like 1992 all over again.
As the set comes to a close with a raucous run through “Rudderless,” Dando addresses the audience: “This has been our self-indulgent concert,” he states apologetically. “Thanks for enduring it.” But it’s not the end; I leave five minutes into a noisy jam session that has seen the oft-called “sexy slacker” gravitate from guitar to bass to the drum set. Accompanied by members of support band Vietnam, he keeps a solid beat while they wail and warble over the top. He looks happy. Flapping away. Like a child who has just discovered pots and pans.