Not feeling the Lemonheads

by Ryan Snyder

Remember the old “SNL” send-up of the incorrigible teen mag Sassy?

It first aired just shortly after the Lemonheads had dominated year-end best of lists with It’s A Shame About Ray, and front man Evan Dando was thus far the biggest schoolgirl crush of the young decade. When the Lemonheads made their Greensboro stop last Friday at the Blind Tiger on the album’s 20th anniversary tour, Dando was only two days short of his 45th  birthday, but it still wouldn’t be hard to imagine him seated alongside Luke Perry opposite Phil Hartman. “Sassy!” Hartman would say at each utterance by the ever-detached alt-rock idol. Dando has aged well out of the running for the defunct magazine’s notorious Sassiest Boy In America title, but through well publicized affairs with crack and heroin that essentially cost him a chunk of the ‘90s and the better part of the 2000s, his dashing looks — along with his maddening indifference — remain inexplicably intact.

It’s not fair, really, that a guy bedding supermodels in his youth was able to lose himself in a decade-long fog to some rather nasty drugs and come out on the other side able to pick up where he left off. Dando exudes the same charmed, slightly arrogant ambivalence of his days as the Poet King of Generation X. The upshot of his drug problems was that it cost him his band and whatever semblance of creative ambition he had left. Since reforming the Lemonheads in 2006, the self-titled album has represented the entirety of his original work and the rest of the band has been rounded out by whatever mercenaries he could cobble together to create the most barebones interpretations of his catalog.

Funny thing was, the hired guns he brought along for this leg of the tour were far more endearing than Dando himself was. On drums, it was the ever-jovial Chuck Treece of Bad Brains and Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” acclaim. Former Taking Back Sunday lead guitarist Fred Mascherino held down bass, but also gave a short opening acoustic set that included “Can’t Be True” from Terrible Things’ lone record and spent a good part of the time in between mingling side stage. Dando actually made more eye contact with his accompaniment than with his audience, trading the occasional grin before turning back to his mic and simply staring at the ceiling for most of the set.

Dressed in a black Western shirt and jeans, Dando began powering through the record from the moment he took the stage. The trio was deep into the title track in the span of a bathroom break. Its sing-along qualities remained intact, but the airy pop, sometimes country sheen to It’s A Shame About Ray was blurred into its noisier antecedent — sonically, this interpretation was much closer to Hate Your Friends than the album that provided a more eardrum-friendly alternative to Nevermind. If it seemed as if Dando was trying to get the album’s 12 songs as expediently as possible, he probably was.

“It’s one of those nights that it’s dawned on me that I’ve been playing this album for quite a while,” Dando admitted at the conclusion of “Rudderless.” “But I think I’ll try and give it justice.”

He perked up somewhat when the admirers collecting near the front of the stage compensated for the absence of Juliana Hatfield’s sweet backing vocals on “Buddy,” even going as far to poke fun at himself before “Bit Part.” “Just can’t believe I can’t remember the next song,” he said, for a moment suggesting he could forget a set list that hasn’t changed in 20 years. Impossible, right? Particularly so since this wasn’t the first time he’d toured on this album. The rest of the compulsory portion of the program saw smallish crowd of a hundred or so Gen-Xers meeting joyously under the ragged brilliance of “Allison’s Starting to Happen” and album closer “Frank Mills.”

Once that weight was lifted, Dando opened up a little, dismissing his band to delve deeper into his extensive songbook on an acoustic Takamine. He came back up with a gentle cover of the Louvin Brothers “Knoxville Girl” and an assortment of self-effacing alt-country underdogs that strip away at Dando’s exterior and show what’s still underneath. “I can’t go away with you on a rock climbing weekend/ What if something’s on TV and it’s never shown again” from “The Outdoor Type” is on so many levels a metaphor for an existence he chose long ago. Dando’s not exactly clean, and the reality that he seems content with a life of detached predictability and fruitless escapism suggests that the …Ray tour would carry forward, 20th anniversary or not.

At least he presents an honest front about it: Crowd gives money, he gives songs. It’s a fair exchange, even if it involves as much emotional intercourse as between a hooker and her john. For people who have stuck by one of alt-rock’s elder statesmen through his foibles, maybe they deserve a little more sass.