Review of The Lemonheads at The Engine Rooms, Southampton
17th February 2019
by Chris Horton of Strong ISland
The Lemonheads. A band that were successful though probably not as successful as they should have been. A band that were very much part of the alternative mainstream but always a step away at the same time. So, how come they didn’t quite reach the commercial heights of their contemporaries? Perhaps this was due to their over indulgence of a pop melody and their refusal to play the tortured rock star narrative associated with your Cobains and Corgans? When Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins et al were taking over the airwaves at the start of the 1990s, Evan Dando’s band were seen as the pop antidote, and not taken as seriously as a result. Or maybe it was the drugs? By the middle of the decade, tales like the one of Dando being arrested mid acid trip in Sydney airport were being told fairly frequently by the NME. A magazine where, incidentally, the legend goes that Dando had smoked so much crack before one interview that he found himself unable to communicate with the interviewer.
Whatever the reasons, the one thing that remains is the sheer wealth of instant alt-rock/pop classics they have produced. Their thrashy cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ may have got them noticed originally (that final scene in Wayne’s World 2 anyone?!) but across a series of albums from 1992’s breakthrough ‘It’s a Shame about Ray’ to cult classic ‘Car Button Cloth’ in 1996 the band produced some stunning songs of their own. Now, after playing as The Lemonheads on and off for the last 30 years or so, Dando is back having released a second album of cover versions – Varshons II – and taking these songs and more back on the road for the first time in a decade.
For tonights show, they manage to squeeze in nearly 30 songs into the 80 minute set and despite at times feeling a little like a highlights package – some songs don’t even get a proper ending as the next tune hurtles in – it’s a breathtaking example of the influence they have had on the alternative rock scene.
Opening with ‘Hospital’ the band don’t let up, going straight into ‘Down About it’ before unleashing other big hitters such as ‘The Great Big No’ and ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’. The band are on form and the buzz in the venue is papable. Looking around there’s many a smile on the faces in the crowd, it’s like nothing has changed – there’s no babysitter at home looking after the kids or the thought of Monday morning in the office, instead it’s 1993 and you’ve been waiting for this gig since you first saw the advert in the Melody Maker.
Dando is a proper icon of that age and although he’s not the most energetic of frontmen – he spends more time looking up at the ceiling then he does interacting with the audience – his voice never falters. It’s lovingly fragile and gritty at the same time and especially shining on the slower acoustic numbers which fill the middle section of the show. In fact, it is this break from the fast-paced nature of the full band experience that turns out to be tonight’s highlight. Starting this section off with the terrific country folk of ‘Outdoor Type’ followed by ‘Frank Mills’ which, fittingly for a tune originally from Hair the musical, is greeted by the night’s biggest sing-a-long moment from the crowd.
The rest of the band come back on stage and it’s time for the third and final part of the set. ‘Being Around’ is greeted like an old friend and again the crowd are also in good voice whilst ‘My Drug Buddy’ – arguably Dando’s finest song – again reminds us just what an instrument his voice is in its own right. Sadly for me they don’t play a couple of my personal favourites – ‘Big Gay Heart’ and ‘If I could talk I’d tell you’ in particular but set closer ‘Into your Arms’ certainly makes up for it, reminding us of Dando’s canny knack for beautiful maudlin melody and emotional heartfelt lyrics. It’s a special ending to a special show.