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Words and Photos: The Lemonheads / Bass Drum Of Death / On Being An Angel at Madrid Theatre

The Lemonheads at Madrid Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rhodes.
Date: December 7, 2022

Madrid Theatre - Kansas City, MO

An acquaintance of mine lamented the state of The Lemonheads after this show last week. He had seen the band in the late '80s at The Bottleneck, just before their breakthrough into the American alt-rock stratosphere, where he said bandleader and primary songwriter Evan Dando appeared to be more physically fit and mentally coherent. I could see his perspective, but as a young fan born a couple years after the band's classic albums were released, seeing Dando on stage in any form was a thrill.

As scatterbrained and scraggly as Dando often appeared last Wednesday, it sort of made the whole experience all the more endearing. Following battles with substance abuse and a life occasionally turned upside down by rock stardom (I highly recommend the New York Times profile on him from 2019), his almost incessant strumming throughout and in-between his songs reflected his inability to quit, and his occasional goofy smile seemed to confirm an authentic joy of being on stage, even if the crowd was only a few hundred deep.

Those times in which Dando was constantly strumming or picking were something magical, too. I'm curious if he played this way back in the '90s. At first glance, this way of performing was inelegant and a tad kooky, but time and time again he would strum one note for several moments until he conjured the next song from the ether, as if not even he himself knew what was coming next. 


The portion of the show with the most structure was the band's full play-through of their classic 1992 album It's A Shame About Ray. Dando wasn't much for traditional stage banter, but perhaps the most memorable bit of it came as he introduced the record by laughing wide-eyed, almost maniacally, as he shook his head and exclaimed, "30 years!" The songs' jangly pop charm and Dando's eccentric and poignant lyricism continue to shine in 2022, illustrated best by a handful of front row devotees hopping up and down losing their minds as each song kicked in. If you love pop and rock guitar music and have ever fallen in love with another human, this set of songs is fairly undeniable. 


Though the magic of the songs was still present, as far as I'm concerned, there was some audible mush-mouthing on Dando's part vocally. Aside from how you took his overall demeanor, that was the one most apparent flaw in the show.


The tour's drummer Mikey Jones unfortunately fell ill mid-tour, but to save the day came Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson, hopping on the bus in Denver and following the band to Kansas City. Though Stevenson played with the band for a few years in the aughts, he was clearly still relearning a couple of the songs as Dando made eye contact with him to assure they were in sync once or twice. Maybe Stevenson missed a note or two, but it was a treat to see the two together nonetheless.

Preceding and following the Ray set were a pair of Dando solo sets, half made up of solo material and Lemonheads songs, half made up of covers from artists like Townes Van Zandt, GG Allin, and his old friends in Smudge. It was the set following the Ray songs when casual fans began to peel from the room. I was too giddy to turn around and look behind me during it, but I imagine this began to happen during Dando's cover of the Misfits' classic "Skulls" (a punk rock number about collecting the severed heads of little girls). His unrelenting, dead-eyed interpretation of the song likely frightened a fan or two in the fancy balcony seats who thought they were simply in for a sunny evening of '90s rock nostalgia. 


Another fun prank played by Dando included a 10-second fake-out in which he played the first line to Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song." But even if the man in the spotlight appeared to you at all unhinged on this night, his ability to connect through song with the people who stood watching him, even until the audience shrank to 50 near its close, is tough to argue. One of New England's most enigmatic sons delivered us over 20 songs and an increasingly rare glimpse at his undying mystique as a musician and pop culture icon.

Oxford, Mississippi garage punk band Bass Drum Of Death took the stage before The Lemonheads. Active since 2007, the trio's expertise lies in cramming a small handful of rock-n-roll styles post-1966 (garage, psych, punk) in a blender and feeding that smoothie (and maybe a couple shards of glass by accident) to anyone willing to stand within a few hundred feet of their amplifiers. In between the shards of glass slicing your mouth open (a.k.a. the fun moments that felt like wacky Ramones b-sides, namely the closing song "Crawling After You") were often monotonous tracks that sounded more gray than colorful despite their booming volume -- perhaps the result of mixing together too many colors at once, or simply lackluster songwriting. This isn't to say the band isn't worth catching live; you should just try your best to see them after a couple drinks in a cramped, sweaty dive bar past midnight.

The show began with a set from Austin, Texas newcomers On Being An Angel. The band complemented the night's headliners perfectly in their ability to pen a catchy and emotive pop song without becoming dependent on cranked-up amplifiers (though they were at the ready and deployed precisely, sparingly during the set). The warmth of each song's melodies was impossible to ignore and the vocals of singer/guitarist Paige Applin floated above the mix in a way that every shoegaze vocalist dreams of (though the band offers more than your standard shoegaze worship).

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