Review: The Lemonheads Bring A Swaggering It’s A Shame About Ray to The Metro

I was introduced to The Lemonheads right around 1990, since someone at my college record store was clearly a fan and kept the Taang! releases in stock and prominently displayed. At the time I found their mixture of hardcore punk with the occasional dollop of a pure pop banger amid all the noise intriguing. And the funny thing is, I avoided Lovey, the album that was the clearest indicator of the sharper pop bent the band's sound was heading, because it had the fewest tracks on it, and was therefore at the bottom of the pile when it came to where I spent the few bucks I could scrounge together to buy new releases.

When It's A Shame About Ray landed a few years later in 1992, it was not only the purest distillation of lead (and only constant) Lemonhead Evan Dando's otherworldly ear for honeyed hooks, but it came at the exact right moment as the tail end of the year "punk broke" turned in to the years "punk grew up." Kind of.

It's also worth noting that It's A Shame About Ray is an outlier in the Lemonheads catalog, because while Dando will always have a knack for writing earworms, Ray was the least experimental and most focused album of the band's entire career.* Pair that with Dando's second career as an advice communist for Sassy magazine during that era of the band's activity, and one would be forgiven for freezing their own mental image of Dando in amber, circa 1993.

So when I learned The Lemonheads we're going to join the "classic album" touring circuit that's popped up in the last few years, it made sense, even if I've personally gown weary of those kinds of tours**. But there is actually a nice expanded reissue of the album to celebrate its 30th anniversary out there, so I could understand the inclination to use that album as a touring peg. But with the news that Juliana Hatfield, a sometime Lemonhead and longtime friend of Dando, would be playing a handful of shows, including the Chicago stop of December 12 at The Metro, it also seemed a unique opportunity to see something potentially special. And despite Dando's recent reputation as a difficult live performer—something I take with a huge grain of salt, having seen Dando many times in various states over the years—pairing him with Hatfield seemed like a recipe for a memorable show.

I'll say this: anyone expecting a tight, sentimental set based in past glories was probably let down, but anyone wanting to see some seasoned musicians staying loose and having fun while still nailing the "classic album" portion of the set walked away in a pretty good mood that night.

Hatfield played a solo electric set, something I've seen her do a few times over the years, and as always, she managed to command an entire room's attention with no more than her voice and a few well-placed guitar chords. Playing fan favorites like "My Sister" early on was a bit of a relief for me, so I could just enjoy her vocals and bursts of guitar pyrotechnics that punctuated her set without wondering if she was saving "the hits."

After a brief set change, Dando ambled onto the stage, slashing at the opening chords of "Into Your Arms" on an acoustic guitar that seemed like it might just fall apart in his grip, as bassist Farley Glavin and drummer Lee Falco began their somewhat shaky accompaniment. I confess I felt a cold chill at that moment, worried that my optimism was about to be dashed, but as the trio barreled through prior "hits" It's About Time," "The Great Big No," and "Dawn Can't Decide," Dando switched to an electric guitar, and the rhythm section locked in, creating big, splashy backdrops of swinging drums and growling bass. It was like watching an engine warm up in front of your eyes and suddenly shift into high gear after moving a few tentative inches forward.

It was right about this point that Dando quipped the tour was on its third drummer. Swervedriver's Mikey Jones started the tour but had to exit due to medical issues, and while The Descendents' Bill Stevenson (and one-time Lemonhead of sorts) popped in to fill in for two shows, Falco had been taped to finish the tour. And Falco's first show was the previous night in Minneapolis. So this meant the Chicago show featured a retooled flow—jettisoning short acoustic sets on previous dates for a full-band attack throughout the entire set, and I couldn't have been happier. And while Falco is not entirely new to The Lemonheads' orbit, his walloping drumming was a highlight of the set for me, propelling the band along at thunderous pace for most of the set, making me completely forgot and of the earlier hesitancy during the opening song..

Throughout the evening Dando did have a hard time hitting the higher notes, but even honey dries eventually, so it makes sense his tenor would give way to his bassier vocal tendencies. But Dando's guitar playing was locked in through the entire evening, so it because pretty obvious that when he did play with vocal cadences here and there, those moves were intentional, either to try and paper over a little of that lost higher range or to simply play with the internal rhythm of a too-familiar song. Both reasons seem a-OK in my book, so I took those brief flights from the familiar in stride.

Most of the the band's performance was given over to this looser approach, and while the set pulled primarily of post-Ray material, you could still hear the old punk side of Dando grooving on the noise and freedom of a wild setlist combining Lemonheads' classics with a variety of covers, ranging from the familiar suspects like Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum" to other musicians both more obscure (EYES) and more expected (Lucinda Williams and Gram Parsons).

The band took a brief break (of, oh, three minutes, maybe?) before returning to blast through an engaging, heavier take on It's A Shame About Ray. While I may not be fond of "classic album" sets, if you've got to do one, having something as compact and perfect as Ray certainly helps. And after toying with it a little, and roughing it up a bit, it provided the perfect rails for The Lemonheads to barrel along for the closing portion of the night. And the night provided the rare opportunity to see Juliana Hatfield join the band to play "My Drug Buddy," a moment that might've been filled with a deeper meaning for some in the audience, and provided an electric jolt of excitement through the entire crowd.

As Dando played "Frank Mills," the final Ray song, solo with his acoustic guitar, I thought to myself how punk rock it would be if he ended the evening there, instead of tacking on the expected encore of the band's cover of "Mrs. Robinson," added to Ray after its release to take advantage of the song's popularity at the time and goose album sales. As I turned to my date to share my obnoxious, if amusing to me, hope, Dando exited the stage, the lights came up, and it became clear to me.

The Lemonheads, even when delivering their prettiest songs, are still pretty punk rock. And Dando has no interest in delivering the predictable, even if some in his audience might want to live in a past era.

Long live The Lemonheads!

*Come on Feel the Lemonheads is filled with bangers, but it's also got songs like "Rick James Style," which showed Dando wasn't going to abandon his quirkier musical pursuits any time soon.
**Seriously. Classic albums played in sequence in a live setting is honestly not a great way to experience a band, even if it does do a nice job of fulfilling the nostalgia machine.

Cover Photo by Barry Brecheisen

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Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

Tankboy resides in the body of Jim Kopeny and lives in Mayfair with Pickle the Kitten and a beagle named Betty (RIP) who may actually be slightly more famous than most of the musicians slogging through the local scene. He's written about music for much longer than most bands you hear on the radio have even existed.