There’s an uneasy feel in the crowd at Shepherds Bush Empire as we wait for The Lemonheads to come on. Tonight’s reunion could go either way – will they still have that magic? Will Evan Dando be on time, will he even be coherent or in a crack induced mess – would this all be a horrible mistake? You almost want your idols to stay in your memories in case they shatter your illusions. But bang on 9.30, a tall figure lopes on to the stage, a wry grin in place and an appreciative nod to the crowds, and the crowd seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief. He’s here, he’s smiling..and he’s wearing a reassuringly random outfit.
In the early ’90’s The Lemonheads were riding the wave of their success with critically acclaimed album, a talented frontman popular for his boyish teen-idol hippy looks and song-writing alike, churning out tracks ranging from the harder grunge through to alt-country – they seemed to have it all going for them, until Evan Dando’s drug habit spiralled out of control. Erratic performances, losing his voice, and no-shows followed until he woke up at an airport one morning, with no idea how he’d got there or what he’d even been doing the day before. The band disintegrated post Reading ’97, and when Atlantic released the ‘Best of’ album in ’98 it only confirmed suspicions that this really was the end. Now years later, The Lemonheads are back, bought together by ‘Don’t Look Back’ for a two night stand.
Standing tall on the stage, his good looks and boyish charm very much intact, Evan Dando looks endearingly self conscious at first. Stand-in bassist Josh Lattanzi and drummer Bill Stevenson follow him out, but it’s very much Dando who the crowd have come to see. . In his floaty red shirt and needlepoint white drainpipes, his trademark blonde hair as unfairly shiny as ever, it’s like we’ve stepped back in time, and from the word go, it’s clear that this is going to be a night to remember.
Without so much as a ‘hello’ they slide straight into the set with ‘Rockin’ Stroll’. The first lines of a ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’ are drowned out by the crowd, and Dando allows himself a smile. ‘Confetti’, ‘Drug Buddy’ (allegedly about Juliana Hatfield) and ‘Kitchen’ are lovingly reinstated, he dedicates ‘Hannah and Gabi’ to ex-bassist Nic Dalton, and ‘Alison’s Starting to Happen’ keeps that little bit of grit in the closing verse.
There’s no banter or chat in-between songs, they glide through the ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’ album, until Dando is left on the stage alone, to pick away at some tracks on his own, they seem to merge into one, like he’s just picking up whatever tune comes to mind. It’s with this section that the alt-country quality comes to the forefront, Dando’s love of Gram Parsons shines through, especially with the breathtakingly beautiful ‘Outside Type’ and ‘Being Around’ , Dando’s haunting voice full of melancholy and regret. A cover of Mike Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ is a high point; standing there, guitar in hand, and a break to his voice, Dando is the epitome of the tragic hero, his lyrics floating across the crowds, who are literally hanging on his every word. And so the hour long set ends all too soon, and it takes the drum tech to actually start taking the drum kit away to convince the ardent front rows that this really is the end.
Rumours abound that, like The Pixies and Dinosaur Junior, The Lemonheads are going to give it another go together. Evan Dando certainly appears to have his demons under control, and with tonight’s life-affirming set, it’s clear he’s made it back from the brink to be every bit as talented as he was. Goofy and modest he may, but then it always was the quiet ones you had to look out for wasn’t it?