Perhaps Evan Dando perceives a subtle indignity in the success of the Lemonheads’ current tour, in which the band—actually, Dando and whoever he’s currently touring with, in this case drummer Brian Nolan and bassist Josh Lattanzi—is playing their seminal 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray in its entirety.
The album was supposed to make Dando a star, until it didn’t—despite the combined bromantic efforts of the entire rock press, who assumed the golden-haired dude was going to be the next big thing. The band, of course, never quite broke through, though they remain a cult favorite. But the allure of this album nearly 20 years later allowed Dando and company to sell out one of two recent nights at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. And a packed audience at Pearl Street Nightclub (a significantly smaller venue) last weekend was also eager to get its ’90s on.
Ray must be among the best underappreciated classics from that era. I’ve come back to it repeatedly over the years and its mix of round-corned punk, sharply observed suburban characters and dogged ear for melody always holds up. This was the case in Northampton, despite a workmanlike performance from the frontman. The songs are so good, it’s hard for them to fail.
The evening was marred by sound problems, with vocal mics cutting out and the band apparently unable to hear much, if anything, from their stage monitors. Despite an interminable sound check after the second band and before the headliners, the crew couldn’t pull it together for Dando’s mic, and his spare stage banter was limited almost wholly to remarks about how he couldn’t “hear shit.” So perhaps this helps explain his apparent grumpiness and half-hearted vocal delivery. But when he opened “Bit Part” with an entirely perfunctory spoken take on the vocal intro (screamed by a female on the record), it sounded more like a mic check or a rehearsal than a performance.
Nevertheless, the material held up very strongly in the power-trio format. We lost the acoustic guitar (and hypnotic backing vocals) of the title track, and the creaky organ of the gem “My Drug Buddy,” but received, in each case, the turbocharged benefit of Dando’s electrified rythmn parts. Nolan was very solid all night, unflashy and on the mark.
Dando’s conception of the album ended with a solo take on the charmingly weird “Frank Mills,” omitting the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” that was appended to the album a few months after its release, and likely proved many fans’ entryway to the group before remaining on all future pressings and the 2007 remastered version of the record. He followed up the record with a handful of solo takes on tunes including “The Outdoor Type” and “Style” before calling the band out for a few more numbers.
It all made for a musically triumphant, if joyless, affair, while pointing at the tension at play with an artist who has consented to do a nostalgia tour but won’t deign to play the single. “Hope in my past,” he sang repeatedly in “Rudderless.” At this point the sentiment must seem wholly ironic.