Lemonheads live at Ottobar, Baltimore MD
21st February 2007

Review by Evan Haga from Harp Magazin

It was like sitting through a screening of your favorite old movie, only to have the projector devour the celluloid before the final scene. Do you ask for your money back? Do you rip your chair out of the floor? No. You’d already seen enough to feel some vague sense of satisfaction and you pretty much knew what you were missing in the finale. Instead you sulk, head home and reach for the DVD. Or in this case, your copy of It’s a Shame About Ray.

It happened just over an hour into the Lemonheads’ show at the Ottobar, a Baltimore concert room and watering hole where post-collegiate hipsters mingle with Charm City’s tattooed, working class bohemia. Dando and his touring rhythm section of bassist Vess Ruhtenberg and drummer Devon Ashley, who also perform in the Pieces, were adequately drifting through “Rick James Style,” an idle entry on 1993’s Come On Feel the Lemonheads. Recorded with guest James when he was neither musically relevant nor a frat-boy’s punch line, it’s a softly, slowly grooving B-side version of “Style,” a taut, razor-witted rocker about compromising actions and consequences.

After a few technical hiccups involving the A/B switching between his two amps, Dando called out an impromptu ending to his band, exited stage right, slipped into his coat and bolted. It was too early for encores, the house lights came on, roadies began the load out and the crowd stood looking at each other, too tired and hip to raise hell. No “Into Your Arms,” no “Mrs. Robinson,” not even a “Become the Enemy,” one of Dando’s latest and greatest sets of hooks. It was a reminder to never believe what you read (or hear).

While it’s been years and a promising solo record since he pulled a Cat Power, recent media spots signified that Dando is officially back on his feet. Regardless of such supposed transformations, both those handsome singer-songwriters have a ways to go: Chan Marshall can still shred an audience’s nerves, and Dando is still capable of acting like a dick, dope or no dope. One thing’s certain: It’s far more fun to read about Dando’s mini-tantrums than pay $17 to live through one.

It’s a shame about Evan, too, since, all in all, he sounded strong and was mostly smiles, shaking off earlier tech squabbles—and there were many—with humor and resilience. Dando also enjoys a luxury many experienced rockers with decent back catalogs don’t— that of having new material that’s just as strong as the old favorites.

With sleight fanfare, he re-launched the Lemonheads last year, plucking the unshakable rhythm section of ex-Descendents bassist Karl Alvarez and drummer Bill Stevenson to record new songs for a new label (Vagrant). On the resulting self-titled album, Dando retains his cozy voice and dependably tuneful songcraft, while offering some of his strongest lyrics to date: the sardonic stuff hits hard and juxtaposes the sweetness in his voice, and even the cutesier tracks avoid the syrupy pitfalls of yore. With this rhythm section of punk royalty, Dando rocks just hard enough—somewhere between the hardcore he started with and the bubblegum alt-rock he preferred by the mid-’90s.

At this live set, a few of these new songs mingled among staples like “The Turnpike Down,” “It’s a Shame About Ray,” “Down About It,” “The Great Big No” and the puppy-love-inspiring “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You,” which strangely excluded the come-down lyric (“You are far and away/My most imaginary friend”). The band kept the crowd—full of settled-down Gen X’ers who probably hadn’t been to a weeknight show since college—singing along with anticipation as to what turn the hit parade would take next.

Sing-a-longs maxed out during Dando’s solo acoustic set, when the long-haired troubadour channeled Gram Parsons doing Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore,” a song that, if not for cock rock, crunk and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” would be B-more’s official closing-time coda. Other solo songs, like the winsome “Outdoor Type” and “Baby’s Home,” a brutal but beautiful murder ballad of sorts off the new album, were reminders that Dando was playing country-rock for the alternative mainstream years before Jeff Tweedy.

Opening for the Lemonheads were Vietnam, who resembled what I imagine actual veterans of the Vietnam War looked like in the mid-1970s. Singer-guitarist Michael Gerner stood squarely in Dylan’s shadow but wore Lou Reed’s nasty beat attitude with profane grace: “You rub your f---ing c--- just to know you’re alive,” he sang at one point. On songs like “Priest, Poet & the Pig,” lead guitarist Joshua Grubb’s Gibson, dripping-wet with reverb, made a grand vintage fog that wafted nicely around a Strokes-y jangle and backbeat.

Before that, Baltimore’s own Oranges Band—who Dando thanked backhandedly as “whoever played first”—played mod-ish power-pop that recalled when the melding of pop and punk shone real brawn. After soldiering on through his own bugs (a broken string, a new guitar, an unfamiliar intro), singer-guitarist Roman Kuebler was told by the soundman to wrap it up. He pleaded for more time, cut his set list by two songs and rocked one final rave-up past curfew. If only all frontmen could show such fervor.

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