This weekend I had the unique opportunity to attend two performances on Cape Cod that were constantly teetering between brilliance and utter failure.
The first was the Lemonheads at the Beachcomber on Friday night. It’s always special to see a show there. It’s a small club atop the tall dunes of Wellfleet. And the waves seem to crash so hard on the shore below that you will swear that you can feel the mist of the Atlantic float up to you on the deck.
The venue has long been a favorite of mine. One of my fondest memories is when my cousin took me to see the Boston hardcore band Sam Black Church. At the time, stage-diving was almost a required stage trick, but there were so few people in the crowd that night that when singer Jet Crandall dove into the crowd, they couldn’t really pass him around, so they just kinda walked around carrying him.
I also have a soft spot for the Lemonheads. I first saw them play 19 years ago (almost to the exact day) in Providence. Singer and guitarist Evan Dando has been my constant, making his way onto any sort of mix I’ve made for girls throughout the years. And I’ve probably seen him play about once a year since then, dragging along with me whichever girls were wooed enough by said mixtapes/mixed discs/online playlists.
Dando’s heyday was from about 1992 through 1994, and he was at one point so ubiquitous that somebody was fed up enough to use a title of Die, Evan Dando, Die for a zine. Zines were a do-it-yourself precursor to blogs, but they were printed out, so that means the dude who did Die, Evan Dando, Die must have had to really hate the guy to spend money getting his message out there.
Evan Dando did not die, however there have been several accounts that suggest he should have, given his well-documented chemical intake. But Evan Dando also did not produce any music that reached the popularity of his two efforts of the early ‘90s, “It’s a Shame About Ray” (1992) and “Come On Feel the Lemonheads” (1993).
But does he need to? The songs are sunny guitar pop perfection. Most of them clock in at under two minutes, but the images of butterscotch streetlamps and drug-cemented friendships are so strong in their bittersweet beauty that you might swear they come from classic novels. The production may be slightly dated, but live, Dando draws primarily from these two albums, and the songs can take on wonderful new lives, especially when Dando is really on.
But when Dando is off, it can be really horrible. I have personally seen him toss his guitar in disgust because of a sound mix he wasn’t happy with, I’ve seen him play his guitar at people who aren’t listening, and I’ve even seen him challenge an audience member to a fight once. Reports of other horrendous shows are legendary too, such as the one where he lost his voice, so he just asked audience members to sing the band’s hits.
So going to watch the Lemonheads always has the degree of uneasiness that makes up for whatever the set lacks in new material. On Friday there was a bit of tension as the 44-year-old Dando told a woman who got up onstage to dance with him, “This isn’t Facebook. Get off!” He also called out a group of girls for talking while he was playing. His singing voice sounded right-on though, and his playing was precise. But he just seemed to be going through the motions.
As he played some of the prettier tracks from “Ray,” the memory of the high school summer that I worked counting cans at the bottle redemption area of the liquor store became so vivid that I almost tossed my half-full can on the ground. His versions just sounded so much like the originals, the way they were recorded nearly two decades before.
But once hecklers and stage crashers had lost interest in his performance, Dando seemed to gain interest. As he sang about the hope in his past of “Rudderless,” he came alive in a way that made all of the baggage of unpredictable behavior and predictable set lists worthwhile. This is why I have gone to see him year after year, whether it’s in the tiny club or the amphitheater, to witness a gifted songwriter engage with his best work, and hope that someday he will reach that creative apex again.
I spent the next evening watching a man twice Dando’s age perform a show that was twice as nerve-wracking. Philo Rockwell King is an 87-year-old comedian and pianist who has been playing every Saturday night in summer at the Sand Bar in West Dennis for 52 years.
He holds the audience captive with his jokes, his boogie woogie piano playing and his daring physical feats. Well, he doesn’t always perform physical feats, but on Saturday, he wasn’t happy with the stage lighting, so he climbed up on a chair to try to fix it. The man is 87!
He occasionally pauses for extended periods of time between set-ups and punch lines, but his jokes are legitimately funny and remarkably current beyond any “look at the cute old man” pity laughs. Make no mistake about it though, there is a palpable sense of the crowd pulling for King to successfully connect the parts of the jokes when his memory does lapse a little. Thankfully, this tension is offset by his piano playing, which is fluid and flawless on the standards and the jumpy tunes of a bygone era that you’ve probably never heard before.
The Sand Bar itself also feels like it’s frozen in time. The air is thick with that musty Cape Cod smell that can only come from years of salt water absorbing into old wood. Old-timey nautical decorations abound, the cover charge is a mere two dollars, the drinks are cheap and the wait staff keep bringing you bowls of complimentary popcorn until you’re full.
Maybe being stuck in the past is not such a bad thing every now and then. Maybe in another 40 years, Evan Dando will be at the Sand Bar. If so, I probably will be too.