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Concert Review: Lemonheads At The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, 12/22/07

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‘Twas a few nights before Christmas, when the Lemonheads rocked the house. It went by so fast, before you knew it, fans made their way out.

On Saturday, December 22, local hero Evan Dando and his newly reformed Lemonheads came to the downstairs section of the famed Middle East nightclub in Cambridge, MA and blazed their way through a set of 30 songs – two decades worth of music – in about an hour and a half.

At approximately 11:32 pm, bassist Karl Alvarez (ex-Descendents), husky drummer Bill Stevenson (ex-Descendents, Black Flag), and Dando took to the stage and warmed up their respective instruments for a minute or so before launching into first song, “Hospital.” Taken from 1996’s Car Button Cloth album, this easy-on-the-ears three-minute jangle pop number was a safe but delicious introduction to the evening.

Dando then stepped on his overdrive pedal for “Black Gown,” which appears on last year’s warmly received comeback album Lemonheads. Like many songs this night, the old school pop punk-sounding number was loud — almost too loud. But Evan and co. remained focused for most of the set, through intermittent squeals of noisy feedback, hearing-loss-inducing volume (from his Marshall amp) and all.

Alvarez, when not singing back up vocals, faced Dando practically the whole night (as if to make sure they were in sync every step of the way). He and drummer Bill Stevenson didn’t seem to miss a beat or vocal cue the whole night. The two aptly fulfilled their backing vocal roles on beloved songs like “The Great Big No”.

Dando, on the other hand twice aborted – then continued – songs. The first time was because he forgot to re-tune one string on his guitar for “Allison’s Starting To Happen.” That was probably due to the relentless pace of the show more than anything, which allowed for very little downtime between songs. [Excuses, excuses.]

The 40-year-old singer, with his hair significantly shorter than in years past and dressed in a Thurston Moore T-shirt showed no sign of age. The tall guitarist easily moved around the stage, sometimes soloing on one or two knees, and working up a sweat as time went on. Sure, there were signs of tiredness, as Dando missed the first part of the refrain to an otherwise spot-on version of the pop rocker “Rudderless.”

The band stayed true to other fan favorites like the slacker stoner proto-punk of “Style,” “My Drug Buddy,” and even got the audience involved on “Bit Part.” The Lemonheads’s poppier hits like “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” and alt-country pop tunes like “Big Gay Heart” also made the set list, the latter of which was played during an 8-song solo electric set by Dando. He didn’t captivate the audience by himself quite like Paul Westerberg (one of his heroes) or Billy Bragg, as Dando often went from one song to the other without a break, and many people were seen talking as the solo set went on.

But momentum swung back to the Lemonheads’ favor during the last phase of the show, which included their biggest hit “Into Your Arms” (first recorded by Love Positions).

By the end of the show, it was quite clear that the band had a ball of a time on stage. Dando and Stevenson even traded instruments and played a quick punk-ish jam with Alvarez as the clock neared 1am.

And that was it. Evan came out from behind the drum kit, grabbed the mic, thanked us all for coming and subsequently left the stage. Smiles could be seen from the performers to the audience members, who were either filing out of the club, or waiting for the trio to come out to the back of the club to sign autographs for the adoring hometown crowd.

In all, it wasn’t a perfect show from a performance and sound standpoint, but that didn’t matter. This new version of the Lemonheads rocked like there was no tomorrow, perhaps in part due to the punk veterans Evan Dando recruited. It was as if he was on a mission to recapture the height of his punk and pop powers in one evening. Consider that Mission Accomplished.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    But no “Mrs. Robinson” or “Its A Shame about Ray”?

    -Glen

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    wow, the middle east! great place to see a band like that. heck, any band really.

  • charlie doherty

    Glen, they certainly did “It’s A Shame About Ray.” They played a lot of classics, almost everything you could want (except “Mrs. Robinson and “Stove”). The band played 30 songs though! No complaints from me.

    About “Mrs. Robinson,” you have to realize that for years (at least when the song was a hit) the band refused to play it live. So I didn’t expect them to play it. I was thrilled enough when they played some of my personal favs like “Rudderless” and “Great Big No.” They even snuck in an Angry Samoans cover (“Right Side of My Mind,” I think). It was a truly inspired – if at times messy – show. Glad I and about 600 others were there to see Evan Dando just plain rock out again.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Didn’t Dando apologize later for that cover of “Mrs. Robinson?” I always heard it was a marketing/label thing and he hated doing it. I could be wrong though.

  • charlie doherty

    Matt: Never heard that one (Dando apologizing for that Paul Simon cover). I can’t imagine why he would since it’s a great cover – it totally sounds like a Lemonheads song. A sign of a good cover is if you can totally make it your own song, isn’t it?

    If it’s true, what you said, my guess is that Dando got sick of hearing it or hearing requests to play it so often that he just said whatever he had to to make the tune go away. But that’s just guessing.

  • charlie doherty

    Mark: I’ve managed to go to the Middle East nightclub so many times over the last 11 years or so, for local acts, national/international acts, or friends bands. It’s always a good time (downstairs or upstairs). And the upstairs room is great for seeing up-and-coming bands up close. I’ve seen Matt Pond PA, E Town Concrete and Minus The Bear there over the years (among many others). And I’ve seen everyone from Death Cab For Cutie and Clutch to 2 Skinnee J’s and Pinback in the downstairs room.

    It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat during the summetime as well, and on a good night, you can even catch a good local act playing in the corner of the restaurant portion of the club for free.

    In fact, as I was waiting for my ride home after the Lemonheads show, I checked out a rockin’ jazz-rock trio called Otis Grove. They were so good, I almost felt compelled to ask my friend (when he arrived) to find a parking space and watch the rest of their show with me! But I was tired, and it was getting to be 1:30am in the morning, so I went home knowing I got more than my money’s worth that night.

    It’s just good to know that Boston (and surrounding areas) still has a thriving music scene these days.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I may have completely made that up. I swear I’ve heard that Dando disowned it, but I really couldn’t tell you where or when I would have heard it so it might just be my imagination.

    To tell the truth I never liked the Simon version and never felt the Lemonheads added anything to it, but that’s just me.

    Loved the cover of “frank mills” on the same album.

  • Charlie

    The “Frank Mills” cover is cool too, though I’ve never really heard the original (from some musical) so I can’t compare the two.

    One thing the Lemonheads do when they cover songs (non-acoustically, that is) is they add a punch to them that wasn’t there in the original recording, and their version of “Mrs. Robinson” stands out (at least to me) for that very reason.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I believe “Frank Mills” is from Hair which is a fun show in a goofy 60s sort of way.

    I know what you mean about their electrifying “Mrs. Robinson” and I don’t think it is a bad cover at all, I just don’t like the song itself for completely arbitrary reasons and thus the Lemonheads cover doesn’t really do it for me.

    How the new(ish) album? I have yet to hear it.

  • Charlie

    The S-T Lemonheads CD, which came out late last year, rocks like the early 90s and even late ’80s Lemonheads, with a punk-ish poppy Buzzcocks edge to it. No doubt this is because Evan Dando let drummer Bill Stevenson – of the Descendents and Black Flag – co-produce the album and co-write three tracks. And Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis adds some easily recognizable (killer) guitar work on “No Backbone” and “Steve’s Boy.”

    Their 2006 “comeback” album isn’t their best by no means, but it’s better than Car Button Cloth (not that it’s bad, either). I don’t know how you’d stack it up against their best albums (their 1992 and 1993 CDS, IMO), but I never saw any reviews slamming it.

    I for one found myself listening to a good majority of its 11 tracks over and over again, which is usually the sign of a good album. I’m not sure how much attention this “new” album has gotten since its release, but I’d imagine most Lemonheads fans who bought it are glad they did.

    Check out some Lemonheads fan forums or Amazon.com reviews of the disc if you’re looking to buy it. The Lemonheads Myspace page has a couple tracks from the album (“Pittsburgh” and “December”) streaming there if you’re wondering what some of it sounds like.

  • Ryan

    J Mascis is the only reason I bought the album…

  • Charlie

    Ryan: So, did you like the (2006) album? Or just the couple of tracks J. Mascis appeared on?