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Yankee Doodle Dando: The former Lemonheads leader tests new tunes in Vermont


Published February 13, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.


In the early ’90s, Boston’s Lemonheads and their enigmatic leader Evan Dando were at the top of the alternative rock heap. Cultivating an image that mixed Merry Pranksters-esque excess and pretty-boy pin-up status, The Lemonheads filled a strange niche between the bubble-gum sass of modern pop radio and the DIY ethos of the emerging grunge scene. The band produced four albums of jangly pop-rock, charted a few classic singles, and then vanished from the public eye, all in the span of about six years.

Now, after an extended period on “where are they now” lists and Internet chat rooms, Dando is gearing up for re-emergence into a rock scene that has largely forgotten his previous work. With his wife and friend Chris Brokaw, Dando comes to the Green Moun-tains over the next week to test his new material and get some much-needed down time — a.k.a. to do some skiing. Accompanied by Brokaw, an alum of Boston indie-punks Come, Dando will play a string of casual engagements at clubs throughout the state.

A host of new projects is turning the spotlight back on Dando: recent collaborations with Moulin Rouge score composer and Massive Attack sideman Craig Armstrong; a newly released double album; and plans to record with a rock supergroup containing alt-country it-thing Ryan Adams, Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur and Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. Dando is also working on his debut solo album, tentatively titled In the Grass All Wine-Colored, which he hopes to release by next fall.

After a couple of years of inactivity, this recent flurry is a massive re-commitment for an artist who had questioned the point of ever returning to the music industry. “I was in a real rut in ’98 and ’99,” Dando comments from his apartment in Manhattan, where he has lived for the past couple of years. “I hadn’t written anything in a long time, and wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of playing.”

Following the last Lemonheads release, 1996’s underrated Car Button Cloth, Dando broke up the band — by then he was the only original member remaining. Plagued by chronic drug problems, and weary of the rock-star image that he had worked so hard to cultivate a few years earlier, Dando retired from making music. Problem was, he didn’t really like it. “Relaxing can be depressing if you have nothing to do,” Dando explains.

In an attempt to get Dando back on his feet, friends at the Aussie label Modular Recordings coaxed him into the studio. “I needed to get back into it, making music again, and I was asked by Modular to go to Australia and do an album,” he says. “I was bored with doing nothing and said, ‘Why not?’” During sessions for the album, Dando reaffirmed his love for performing and decided to begin work on material for the solo debut as well.

The result of the Australian sessions is the new double CD set Live at the Brattle Theater/Griffith Sunset — currently available only as an Australian import. The combo includes an EP of six country covers and an 11-track live recording from his brief solo tour in October 2000. Live at the Brattle Theater features Dando careening through a greatest-hits selection of The Lemonheads’ back catalogue. Only one new song, the cleverly titled “The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is The Same Thing I Can’t Live Without,” written with frequent collaborator Tom Morgan, appears on the disc.

Even absent new material, Live at the Brattle Theater is a strong reminder of the power of Dando’s playing and songwriting, from the opening chords of “Down About It.” Dando’s voice fills the room, breathing life into every syllable. Even after years of mistreatment and underuse, his warm tenor still soothes like morphine.

Though he claims to just “pick songs that I like,” Dando has always produced remarkable covers and had an uncanny ability to make them his own — from the intimate rendering of Gram Parsons’ “Brass Buttons” on The Lemonheads’ 1990 Atlantic debut, Lovey, through his revved-up rendering of “Mrs. Robinson” and more recent tunes by such luminaries as The Louvin Brothers.

On the Griffith Sunset EP, Dando adeptly goes country. Fred Neil’s “Ba-De-Da” is recreated as a mid-tempo, alt-country ballad, with a spicy guitar lick and Dando’s semi-detached, casual vocal. John Prine’s “Sam Stone” is given a bare reading suitable to the song’s downtrodden lyrics, while The Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone” becomes a slow, tear-jerking lament with wavering vocals and quietly strummed guitar.

Re-connected with music and “totally psyched” for the future, Dando is excited to perform his new material in the casual confines of local clubs. “I haven’t had a chance to get away much this year, so I’m looking forward to Vermont,” he confides. “We may have to rent skis, though — don’t have much room for all of us in the car.”

Evan Dando performs February 17 at Higher Ground in Winooski; February 18 and 19 at the Indigo Lounge in Wilmington; February 20 at the Pickle Barrel in Killington; and February 21 at the Rusty Nail in Stowe.