The Lemonheads, The Loose Salute

James Lachno 19/09/2009

Perhaps the best word to describe The Lemonheads' career is overshadowed. Despite perfecting a distinctly alluring form of grunge-lite in the wake of Nirvana's Nevermind explosion in the early 1990s, they retained only fleeting mainstream success, and even then largely due to an average cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson which has long since been disavowed. Similarly, whilst more revered indie-alternative bands such as The Pixies and Pearl Jam have sparked widespread interest (not to mention overblown remasters and box-sets) with their noughties reunions, the return of the Lemonheads since 2006 has come with more of a whimper than a bang, with two moderately received studio albums and a series of smallish tours.

Perhaps this relative indifference stems from the fact that the Lemonheads were never really a band. Since their major label debut in 1990 the name has essentially been a vehicle for the singer-songwriter abilities of mercurial front man Evan Dando, whose model good looks and unashamed hedonism made him far more popular with the gossip magazines than the Lemonheads' music ever was with the general public. Therefore, the Lemonheads as a musical entity were not only overshadowed by their peers, but also by their leader.

However, even back in the 1990s Dando seemed to attract attention more due to his frank and naive responses to basic questions than any kind of calculated publicity campaign. Indeed, based on this evening's performance, it would appear misguided to hold Dando personally liable for his pre-eminence in the context of his group. Despite a democratically laid out stage which clearly emphasises the importance of his bassist and drummer; despite the paucity of crowd interaction into which Dando immerses himself, and despite the fact that he spends most of the performance rocking characteristically back and forth whilst looking shyly into the microphone, one thing remains clear: Dando is an understated star. At various points in the gig, you find your eyes quite unintentionally drawn to the lead man, who exudes a beguiling mix of broad-shouldered calmness and introspective vulnerability; like Kurt Cobain without the rage.

All this lends further charm to the bittersweet melodies of the Lemonheads' tunes. Tonight they wisely stick to material from their best known (and most accomplished) records, playing the majority of tracks found on both It's a Shame About Ray and Come on Feel the Lemonheads, sprinkled with a few from their latter efforts. The response from the eclectic, excitable crowd, ranging in age from around 15-50, shows that this was a smart move. Familiar and energetic renditions of Confetti, Alison's starting to Happen and Great Big No sound great, and are greeted with delight.

Surely the biggest treat, however, is when Dando does - albeit with an air of shy reluctance - take centre stage, barely stopping to catch his breath whilst ripping through over half a dozen short, sweet acoustic tracks. Whereas the cheerful bombast of the full band was pulsatingly fun, Dando's deep, almost countrified voice could get slightly lost in the mix, and the deluge of simple power pop lacked some variety. In contrast, on stripped down versions of Favourite T, and particular highlight, Frank Mills, Dando's voice soars, his honeyed delivery more than making up for the few high notes he cautiously avoids, leaving the crowd only to lament that his best track, Drug Buddy, which here lacks some of the stoned authenticity it had in 1992, had not been given the same acoustic treatment.

Despite this, the return of the full band for a rabble-rousing finish including an audience-augmented thrash through Rudderless provides a satisfying climax. Whilst some bay for an encore, there is no grandstanding, no smashing of guitars. A humble Dando merely quietly thanks the crowd and leaves. The Lemonheads' frontman, and by proxy their music, may have been hard to like for the more credible alternative aficionados of the 1990s. However, on this occasion - without ever reaching stratospheric highs - both are very hard to dislike: almost perfectly understated. With Dando the musician taking the lead, Lemonheads the band are all the better for it, proving perhaps the Lemonheads could have been something special.