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The Guy You Kinda Shoulda Sorta Woulda Love to Hate

The Lemonheads, the Ottobar, Feb. 21

Andy Cook
COME ON FEEL THE COMEBACK: The Lemonheads' Evan Dando trots out his surprisingly durable back catalog at the Ottobar.

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 2/28/2007

The Lemonheads, erstwhile slacker kings of 1990s indie rock, recently returned from a near decade-long hiatus with a sleek new self-titled set of shiny, bittersweet power pop. Were they greeted with the rapturous critical hosannas of an adoring rock press? Did pulses collectively quicken at the return of one-time golden boy Evan Dando?

No. Mild curiosity at best was the order of the day, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just that Dando’s moment in the sun may be long gone but also that it’s always been so easy to loathe him: a jaded junkie pretty boy who, instead of OD’ing and ensuring immortality, had the temerity to survive and maintain his alternahunk good looks.

What’s frequently forgotten about Dando, however, is that he’s also one of the finest songwriters of his generation, with a gift for yearning, aching melody. And he demonstrated this with almost nonchalant ease at a packed Ottobar crammed with devotees who hung on his every word. Indeed, such was the air of said devotion that, if Dando farted into a mic, the majority of the audience would have probably experienced collective orgasm.

The band hit the stage bang on time, which seems something of a novelty as Dando is infamous for “erratic” performances and the kind of prima donna behavior last seen with circa-’72 Mick Jagger. Dando and crew lurched into four minutes or so of an instrumental sludge-athon reminiscent of early Black Sabbath, and just as everyone in the room started to think, What the fuck?, Dando skipped straight into the buoyant, giddy rush of “Confetti,” sending the audience into instant sing-along mode. From there on in Dando cherry-picked concisely crafted classics from his impressive back catalog: “The Turnpike Down,” “Rudderless,” “Down About It,” a sublime, incandescent “Ride With Me,” which sounded even more bruised and heart-wrenching almost 20 years on. New material—such as a beefed-up, frenetic “Black Gown” and a frantic “Let’s Just Laugh”—fit in the set snugly, as the band threw in a couple of well-chosen covers, including the Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love” and a crowd-pleasing “Streets of Baltimore.”

Dando’s current backing musicians—bassist Vess Ruhtenberg and drummer Devon Ashley—were an inspired choice. Despite the fact that the Lemonheads have always been something of a benign dictatorship for Dando and whoever he deems worthy enough to lend a hand, Ruhtenberg and Ashley were tight and focused throughout, while loose enough to accommodate Dando’s occasional whims and eccentricities, there whenever he decided midsong to change tempo suddenly or launch into a white-noise guitar break.

There was undoubtedly a degree of nostalgic goodwill in evidence, but Dando’s deceptively simple songs sounded as fresh as ever, full of addictive hooks and melodies and played with an easy, attractive, off the cuff charm. Even after all that time away, he made it look so effortless. Don’t you just hate him?

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