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We were sitting at the bar, my friend and I, talking about shows we've seen. Great shows. Tom Waits! M.I.A.! Prince! And, then, the less than great. And then, the most troubling of all, that weird and wobbly middle ground of the "inconsistent." Notorious acts like Cat Power could sometimes be transcendent, sometimes, well, lousy. To this list of the unpredictable, I add Evan Dando and his Lemonheads.
Listen, it's not necessarily bad. It just is what it is. At a 2007 show at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, Dando played a few songs with a tunefulness I'd generously describe as achieving the minimum amount of competence. He was listless, and he stopped and started songs erratically. About half the crowd, which had seemed excited and hopeful, left the club before the show was over. And then last fall in Atlanta, after pushing showtime back several times, Dando came out, announced he was sick, and performed one song before backing out, saying he had to save his voice for a big show in D.C. the next day. He was sick, okay. But he handled his relationship with and obligation to his audience clumsily.
So, sitting at the bar, my friend and I started discussing what it is you're paying for when you pay to see a show. His thoughts: The $10 or $20 you pay is a contract between you and a performer. You give money and what the performer gives is solid entertainment. My thoughts: You pay a club for admission, and whatever happens after you're inside happens. You take a chance.
So considering a performer's obligation to the crowd and the unresolved issue of what it means to see a show, and with resurfaced frustrations after discussing the Lemonheads shows, I figured I'd go to the source. Instead of talking about Dando, how about talking with Dando?
Currently on tour playing his landmark 1992 album It's a Shame About Ray in its entirety, Dando has the following opinion: "If you play the songs, that's what they pay for. We're not a comedy act. We don't have jokes and stuff. The performance is just to celebrate the music. We try to have fun and play the songs to the best of our ability. That's it."
His answered seemed dismissive, but he was also exhausted in the middle of a long tour. And to be fair, Dando was sitting in the back of a tour van trying to find his way to a club in Indianapolis when we spoke — not the most inspiring environment for engaging in the theoretical questioning of a pesky music journalist. Dando's idea of obligation to a crowd is to the point. "I just think you should play the songs. You should play the songs. Just do what you can do. Sometimes funny things happen, but that's the way it goes," he says.
So. You should go see Evan Dando play his songs. I'm not going to — not anymore — but I think you should. But then, I'm the type to encourage people to see movies I don't like because I think everyone should make up their own minds. Here's the thing: Dando and a rotating cast of backing musicians have performed under the name The Lemonheads for a quarter-century. The guy can play a good show, and there's a chance that this week's Rhythm Room show will be one of those; Dando's backed by tour pro Chuck Treece (Urge Overkill, Bad Brains) on drums and Fred Mascherino (Taking Back Sunday, The Color Fred) on bass.
He's performed well-written, wry, emotionally compelling songs. But he hasn't always performed them well, and I've been burned enough times by shaky, frustrating, or outright incompetent Dando performances not to feel compelled to go back. It's a shame about inconsistency, but taking that chance with live music is worth it.