by Sam Wise.
30 years ago, Evan Dando blessed the world with one of the greatest albums of the 90s. It’s A Shame About Ray had no weak spots, no b-grade material, it ran through fast and tight with songs that veered between genius, and merely excellent. Not only that, but it made a star of The Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, the handsome, talented slacker who was steering the ship with the lightest of touches. 20 year old Sam Wise wanted to BE Evan Dando; I wanted to be that cool, that laid back, that talented, that handsome. I learned most of the songs on guitar, I listened over and over, and my brother and I made our way to Camden to hear them play. It was a big trip out for two kids from the Isle of Wight, and is burned in my memory as an excellent gig.
When I heard that Evan Dando was bringing The Lemonheads to Southampton for the 30th Anniversary of It’s a Shame About Ray, there was no question of what to do. I bought tickets, I invited my brother and in a key strategic mistake, also my kids. I have two 14 year old kids, and they are infinitely cooler than I was at that age, but I knew that this would impress them. To be fair to them, we share a lot of music, both ways, but I was very excited to have them hear such an iconic album played start to finish in one hit by a band I had loved so much (although, let’s be real. The Lemonheads is Evan Dando and whoever else he can get to turn out).
The 1865 is a favourite venue of ours, and on this night, the security were the nicest we have ever met. My wife is a wheelchair user, and they constantly went far out of their way to make sure that she was comfortable and able to access anything she needed. The support acts were a mixed bag; the opening act was so forgettable that I genuinely have forgotten them. I could look them up, and tell you, but I would not be doing you any favours. The chief support, however, BASS DRUM OF DEATH, were magnificent; incredibly tight, hard rocking, and somehow still punk rock despite their exceptional competence. Possibly they weren’t what you might expect at a Lemonheads show; two guitarists drove synchronous riffs straight through the audience like bullets, while a drummer like a catatonic machine manned the engine room and drove the whole thing forward unstoppably, but make no mistake, their set was the highlight of the evening. They said almost nothing, burning from song to song with barely a moment between, and maybe that was a sign of their feelings about what was to come.
After an unnecessarily long break, Evan Dando took to the stage, alone. While Ella Fitzgerald sang Miss Otis Regrets, Evan stumbled, clowned and bluffed his way around the stage, accompanying the recording at certain points, throwing his jacket into the audience, and generally acting the amiable fool, before finally strapping on his acoustic guitar and bursting into classic solo acoustic number Being Around. Now, Evan’s solo acoustic sessions were always a highlight of earlier Lemonheads shows, and they were always charmingly shambolic, but charged with real beauty. Being Around, however, revealed one thing, which was that Evan’s voice would not be joining him on stage in Southampton. He sounded like he was at the bad end of a terrible cold, and was not helped by the constant slurring of his words. Being Around got a warm response from the audience, but as he attempted to get into a groove, difficulties became clearer to see. Evan could not sing tonight, and in fact, he could barely walk. He lost patience with his acoustic guitar, switched to electric, suffered constant tuning problems, forgot the guitar parts on several songs, and at times was clearly only continuing with a song because he felt he had to.
Not that there were not moments of beauty in this first set, and the crowd were very willing to forgive him and give him space and time, but as the band took the stage for the second section, he said “I’m sorry you all hate me, I hate myself. Don’t worry, this is the good part now”. I think many of us felt that we were seeing a man in the middle of a very difficult moment.
The gig was a sellout, and by the time they began the playthrough of It’s A Shame About Ray, the venue was rammed and full of anticipation. They were a three piece, with a second guitarist apparently having walked off the tour some days earlier, but when they kicked into Rocking Stroll, it seemed for a glorious moment that it was all going to come good. They were tight, Dando knew his guitar parts, maybe it was all going to be ok. Unfortunately, he was still struggling to sing, and after a couple of tracks, resorted to inviting an audience member to sing for him. This resulted in an absolutely glorious Bit Part, with his guest having the time of her life singing Julianna Hatfield’s lines, while Dando was able to sing everything required of him during this low register song. His guest stayed on stage during Alison’s Starting to Happen, which despite being one of the best songs on the album, was probably the worst of the evening. Nothing she could do could save Dando from his own vocal failings on the evening, and the song was unrecognisable. That was the pattern for the rest of the album; the band were tight and excellent, but the melodies simply were not in Evan’s voice to be brought out. As Dando embarked on a solo Frank Mills to close the album, the other two band members downed tools and walked off the stage without so much as making eye contact, still less being introduced. You have to feel that this tour has not been a bed of roses for them.
Had Dando left the stage after what was a moving take on the song from Hair, with most of the audience singing along, perhaps all would have been forgiven. Tough night, lost voice, you can’t be your best all the time. He did not, however, leave the stage, but rather embarked on a second solo set, still more shambolic than the first. Evan’s voice was still further gone by now, and the audience were visibly uncomfortable as he croaked and clanged his way through more songs, stopping part way through some, sometimes singing inaudibly, away from the microphone. Perhaps the deepest ignominy came when he got behind the drum kit, and failed to achieve adequacy in either drumming or singing his way through a country classic. By the time Dando dropped his guitar and wandered off the stage, the room was half empty, and punters were remonstrating for their money back.
It was, to be frank, embarrassing, both in the way that witnessing a very bad performance always is, but for me, also because of the presence of my children. They had disengaged altogether before half way through, and there was no small amount of discomfort for me in knowing that now, even once they have listened to the album, they will never have the sort of relationship with The Lemonheads that I have had. It could have been so different. Reports from earlier in the tour were of wonderful, free flowing shows with Dando at his best. By the time he reached us at the end of the tour, however, had nothing left to give, and appeared not to want to be there.
For me, the night was a reminder of the dangers of nostalgia. 30 years ago, I wanted to be Evan Dando. Today, I still wish I had written all those wonderful songs, but do I want to be the chaotic husk of former Evan who we saw on Wednesday? Not really. I hope you’re ok, Evan. I really do.
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