They may have kept a relatively low profile since the late ’90s, but Evan Dando and his latest incarnation of Lemonheads were alive and well at the Junction in February. The once ‘grunge-pop heroes’ were promoting a new album of choice covers (Varshons II) – following the first Varshons album released back in 2009. Could it be that Evan’s been suffering a bout of writer’s block since his last collection of original material back in 2006?
No matter… he’s not the first artist to get ‘under the covers’ in a bid to reignite the creative juices or, maybe, just to have a bit of fun along the way. For an artist who has at times appeared to be a stranger to his own career path, Dando has consistently played with the idea of covers as “just a weird little vehicle to reach some more people.” This was most memorably achieved, when The Lemonheads adopted Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson which helped to boost sales of their ‘bubblegrunge’ classic, It’s A Shame About Ray, in 1992. (A year earlier they even went so far as to cover New Kids On The Block’s Step By Step for reasons best left unanswered.)
The eclectic collection of covers from the first Varshons album says a lot about Dando’s mix of influences, and offered an array of songs from disparate artists that still amuse, appal and entertain in equal measure ten years on. This second album promises the same with selections from The Eagles, Nick Cave, The Jayhawks and Yo La Tengo among others. All ‘worthy vehicles for Dando’s slowly maturing, forever swoonsome baritone’ – according to the sticker. If nothing else, these collections provide a great excuse to dig out the originals and from there… well, who knows? By the way, green and yellow vinyl LPs come in ‘banana scented scratch and sniff’ sleeves. Fortunately these are limited editions.
Tonight, Dando comes onstage with the other three members of the band and looks like he’s just stepped out of 1992 – preserving that carefree and slightly, er, unwashed look. Mind you, I don’t think anyone who might have fawned over him back in the early ’90s were complaining. Dando then spends the vast majority of his time onstage staring into the lighting rig above the audience’s heads. In fact, he does this for so long that a couple of times I can’t help but look behind me to check if one of the venue lights has come off its hinges – but it’s probably just ‘his way’.
Not a word is uttered by Evan (or anyone else onstage) until halfway into the set when he says “Hello” – and we enjoy this while it lasts. No, I guess we didn’t come here to be regaled with stories and jokes, so it’s good that he cracks into one song after another in true Ramones style, and keep the gaps to an absolute minimum. And then, curiously, a few songs in, things start getting really loud. I mean really loud. Dando’s guitar sounded like it was fit to burst into a squall of feedback at any given moment; and those moments were plenty. The Lemonheads’ lead guitarist, Chris Brokaw, has said that Dando thrives on the ‘chaos and unpredictability’ onstage that helps to keep the live material exciting and spontaneous. Well, tonight it showed.
The ‘acoustic set’ offers some respite. Namely, Hard Drive (sounding more earnest than ever), The Outdoor Type (a concise confessional), and Being Around (I mean, how much fun can you fit inside 109 seconds?). Quite a lot as it turns out. Try these for size:
If I was in the fridge, would you open the door?
If I was the grass, would you mow your lawn?
If I was your body, would you still wear clothes?
If I was a booger, would you blow your nose?
Brokaw and Dando’s interplay onstage was sublime, and it took some oh-so-familiar material into a new dimension, with an edginess to the songs, giving them a restive, skittish feel at times. Brokaw has been playing with Dando since 2001 (he appears on the Baby I’m Bored album from 2003 and both the Varshons albums); their tight musicianship (or was it telepathy?) shone through as the pair treated us to some of the night’s undoubted highlights.
It’s all true: Dando has that ability to sing almost anything and make it sound heartfelt, and this he does despite some of his vocals being buried in the ‘crash bang wallop’ of the live mix. It’s a good thing, then, that he delves generously into a back catalogue of gems that were treated with the same apparent nonchalance as the rest of the set. He makes it all sound so effortless providing a seamless aspect to a setlist that’s actually been cobbled together from a variety of different writers – not to mention eras. No mean feat. Even some of Dando’s own ‘greatest hits’ weren’t written by the man himself: Into Your Arms and The Outdoor Type to name but two. But he makes these songs his own anyway.
Other notable high points include the brilliant caustic ‘noir-pop’ of It’s A Shame About Ray and the ‘melancholy soft summer wooze’ of My Drug Buddy – possibly the best song ever about a drug deal gone right. I also have to mention Bit Part (where anybody gets to sing the response line: “A BIT PART IN YOUR LIFE!” loudly). Yes, sometimes it’s the simple things in life… And in the end, inevitably, Into Your Arms, where Dando delivers: “And if I should fall, I know I won’t be alone anymore…”.
The songs and the sentiments will be alive and well long after everyone in the Junction tonight has been and gone. Long may Evan Dando offer his unique varshon of things. I’m looking forward to Varshons 3 in 2029 already…
Words by Chris Williams
Photos by Valerio Berdini