Taste of Randolph Street, Chicago, June 20, 2003
For some reason, I always find myself rooting for Evan Dando. In spite of a lot of things that make me want to hate him (his looks, his voice sometimes), I just can’t. I like the Lemonheads, and It’s a Shame about Ray has regularly ended up in my cd player since I first heard it in 1993. But it’s been a rough decade for Dando with lots of drug issues and a creative drought. He became the crackhead that music snobs loved to hate. And we all know that after junkie musicians stop taking drugs, their music starts to suck. Sad, but true. Think Aerosmith, think Eric Clapton for the most obvious examples. So what can we expect from a sober Evan Dando?
Quite a lot as it turns out.
I can’t verify with absolute certainty that Dando was 100% sober at his Chicago street fair show last Friday (sorry, I forgot to bring my piss test kit), but in recent interviews, he claims to have given up drugs before recording his first solo album, Baby I’m Bored (Bar None), and he gave up drinking shortly after. He’s into O’Doul’s now, I hear. So…
He opened the show by himself, just him and his Gibson SG, playing “The Outdoor Type,” the best song from the final Lemonheads album, 1996’s Car Button Cloth, and a great song for an open-air show with its chorus of “I lied about being the outdoor type.” Sounded great, his voice clear, guitar playing simple and clean. He looked pretty good with a new beard, a greasy bob haircut, and a bright yellow Dickies t-shirt. A little pale, some circles under his eyes, but not unhealthy-looking.
His band joined him for the rest of the show, and emboldened by the obviously comforting presence of Juliana Hatfield on bass, Evan Dando turned out a beautifully loose set. I had heard terrible reviews of unrehearsed covers stopped midway through the songs, and failed attempts at remembering old lyrics, all of which reminded me of a disastrous Elliott Smith show I’d seen last year. But there was none of that pathetic shit at this show. Sure, Dando strained to reach the high notes, but when his voice cracked it wasn’t painful; it just sounded like a guy trying really hard to do a great job. And for the most part he did.
The onstage chemistry between Dando and Juliana Hatfield was infectious. He would turn to her during the instrumental breaks in the songs and just smile at her with a big, dopey (bad choice of words, sorry) grin that kept me and most of the rest of the crowd smiling the whole time as he ran through a number of Lemonheads favorites (“It’s a Shame,” “My Drug Buddy,” “Great Big No”) and a bunch of stuff from the new album. He needed a lyric sheet for “Hard Drive” which came off a little stilted. Whatever. He made up for the stiffness with nice, raw interpretations of the rest of the material. Loose but not messy, they sounded like a bar band that would make you set down your High Life and say, “These guys are really good… I’d buy their album.”
And you should. Baby I’m Bored is the rare exception in the genre of “recovery records” in that it’s actually good. It’s far rawer than any of the Lemonheads’ Atlantic recordings. Some of the songs don’t feel quite finished (“In the Grass All Wine Covered”), and the whole thing has an easy-going, “living room” vibe to it. You can almost feel the dim light coming through orange velvet curtains. It’s nice. And mellow. There are moments that could almost fit on Jack Logan’s home-recorded masterpiece, Bulk (“Waking Up”). There are also a handful of perfect pop songs, two of which (“Hard Drive,” “All My Life”) were written by Dando fan and former Noise Addict, Ben Lee, who famously wrote “I Wish I Was Him” about Dando back in 1993 when Lee was, like, 13 years old.
Lyrically, there’s a whole lot of confession and regret on this album. Is Dando trying to talk himself into believing it? “Whatever part of you that’s been calling the shots is fired” (“Shots Is Fired”), “You stayed awake for fourteen days and then you slept a week / Why do you do this to yourself?” (“Why Do You Do This to Yourself”). There are some pretty intense, personal lyrics: “I can’t believe how far I slid / But secretly I’m glad I did” (“The Same Thing You Thought Hard About”), “All my life, I thought I needed all the things I didn’t need at all” (“All My Life”). But Dando pulls these off with such a breezy, nonchalant attitude that the heaviness is subdued until it feels like subtext. What it sounds like he’s saying is, “Hey, I’m all right. Don’t worry,” even when his lyrics and his track record blatantly suggest otherwise.
But things seemed okay on Friday night as Dando and his band rocked through their set. It’s always somewhat surreal to see bands out in the daylight. Especially at a street fair where people are constantly walking in front of you with plates of Thai food or clutching a giant turkey leg. For the most part the crowd was attentive and respectful, although there was a dumbass standing next to me who kept shouting, “Give him a needle!” My social worker wife had to gently explain to him why that wasn’t cool; the fuckwad listened to her and eventually seemed convinced that it indeed was not cool to shout things like that, and he stopped shouting. I’m constantly amazed by people.
So here’s to hoping that Evan Dando can keep his shit together long enough to release some more good albums and play more good shows. People can change, and sometimes it’s even for the better.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, Juliana Hatfield is still totally adorable. And a kick-ass bass player.
You can stream Evan Dando’s album on his website. Thanks to Anthony Juliano for the live photos!