The Lemonheads | 02.15.07

Dando, looking hobo-chic in a hoody, ratty vintage military-style jacket, and stocking cap pulled down over his eyes, seemed hesitant until a few songs in, when he asked for some help from the sound guy, saying, "I can’t hear myself sing up here."

 

The Voodoo Café and Lounge at Harrah’s, St. Louis

For some shows, the venue can be just as important as the band lineup. Case in point, it would seem a natural fit for Evan Dando and his newly revamped Lemonheads lineup to play at Mississippi Nights on their first stop in St. Louis after a nearly decade-long break. But with the Nights shuttering the doors on their Laclede’s Landing location a month prior, you get the feeling that the band was left scrambling for a new location.

This is the only explanation that would make sense out of the fact that the Lemonheads were playing in a casino. The Voodoo Lounge has one of the oddest layouts imaginable for a rock show, with the stage literally on top of the bar, leaving the band towering 15 or 20 feet above the crowd. It’s a setup that seems like it’d be great for a night out where the band is the background music and not the center of attention, but for a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll show, it’s a little odd.

Openers VietNam never quite got the hang of it. The Brooklyn band, whose solid debut has music critics tossing the "next big thing" tag around with alarming regularity, certainly sounded fine. Their performance was very insular, however, the band members acting as if they felt disconnected from the crowd and were playing instead for each other. It was a decent set, but one that didn’t leave much of an impression.

The Lemonheads took a few songs to find their groove. Dando, looking hobo-chic in a hoody, ratty vintage military-style jacket, and stocking cap pulled down over his eyes, seemed hesitant until a few songs in, when he asked for some help from the sound guy, saying, "I can’t hear myself sing up here." Glitch fixed, Dando began performing with eyes closed more often than not, and the band came to life.

Backed by Vess Ruhtenberg and Devon Ashley of the late Indianapolis band the Pieces (filling in for the Descendents/All rhythm section of Karl Alvarez and Bill Stevenson, who appear on the band’s new self-titled album, out now on Vagrant), Dando fired through a setlist packed with over 30 of his bite-sized nuggets of pure pop bliss. The setlist leaned heavily on the band’s 1992 breakthrough It’s a Shame About Ray and its 1993 follow-up Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The crowd reacted loudly to each new song from these albums, from the shambling "My Drug Buddy" to the giddy "Down About It." The tempo was all over the place, with the blistering one-two punch of the Ray rockers "Bit Part" and "Alison’s Starting to Happen" sitting next to folksier numbers like "Confetti" or the ultimate crowd pleaser, "Big Gay Heart," but it all hung together quite well. Four songs from the new record slid comfortably into the mix, as well. The only songs missing were, surprisingly, the Lemonheads’ biggest hits, their covers of "Mrs. Robinson" and "Into Your Arms," but with such a wide-ranging, packed setlist, there were few complaints.

The show was not without its weird moments. For starters, the guitar tech was actually onstage with the band instead of behind a curtain, where the crowd could watch as he tuned the same guitar for the entire first hour of the set, hesitantly passing the instrument to Dando only to be waved off, causing him to go back to tune it again. In lieu of an encore, Ruhtenberg and Ashley left the stage for a brief solo acoustic performance from Dando. Opening with "The Outdoor Type," Dando had the crowd in the palm of his hand, but after one more song, Dando played what sounded like the first bars of the Misfits song "Skulls" (a Lemonheads live staple) before storming off the stage in a huff. The audience was dumbfounded. Was the show over? Continuing to applaud, hoot, and holler well after the house lights came up, the crowd wandered out into the casino proper, confused and disappointed.

Finding Ruhtenberg outside shaking hands with fans, one of my cohorts asked the bassist what had happened. "Oh, he does that every night," he replied. "Did you like that?" No. No we didn’t. It was a frustrating and awkward end to a largely enjoyable concert, Dando’s shtick leaving a bitter aftertaste on a show that was enjoyable from the start all the way up until its final seconds. | Jason Green

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