The Lemonheads in Whitespace
Photography by Stephen Lavoie
It’s difficult to comprehend the significance of the Lemonheads show in Manila last December 4 if you’re not a devoted fan, or familiar with their songs at the very least. The band never really achieved the kind of mainstream popularity as their contemporaries during the heyday of alternative pop-rock in the 1990s. But for Filipinos who’ve kept them close to their hearts all these years, who’ve treated their cassette tapes and CDs with their fraying inlays as priceless treasures, and sang along to their songs on road trips, meet-ups and breakdowns, it was a show for the ages.
The Lemonheads is essentially Evan Dando, he of the patrician nose and dirty blonde hair, who was once included in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. A parade of musicians has kept Dando company since the group’s formation in the late 1980s, but the current lineup includes Chris Brokaw. They have not released new material since 2009’s Varshons (and even that was an album of covers), but nobody seems to mind. Most remember them for their songs in the 90s, particularly from their albums It’s A Shame About Ray, Come On Feel The Lemonheads and Car. Button. Cloth.
Whitespace in Makati had a decent-sized crowd that turned up for the band’s first-ever show in the Philippines. Three local groups had the honor of opening for The Lemonheads: Ang Bandang Shirley, Ciudad (fronted by Mikey Amistoso, whose solo project called “Hannah+Gabi” is named after a Lemonheads song), and the Itchyworms. At a few minutes past 10 p.m., the band materialized and the crowd had their first glimpse of Dando.
Photo by Stephen Lavoie
Wearing torn jeans, a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off over a plain t-shirt, and well-worn Vans sneakers, Dando looked like he time traveled from 1995, except for his eyes, which partly lay hidden underneath his wild, unkempt hair. They were glassy and tired, like he had just woken up and was still trying to make sense of the world around him. Dando’s struggles with substance abuse are well-documented, so there were the obvious assumptions, but after mumbling a quick, “Hi,” to the crowd the band launched into the first song, “Hospital.”
I couldn’t help but feel wonder and disbelief in that instant. This was a band that was part of my formative years; Come On Feel The Lemonheads is one of my all-time favorite records, and the songs in it will forever remind me of quiet Saturday nights alone in my bedroom and lazy Sunday afternoons hanging out with my college barkada. And now here they were performing live. It was surreal. When they did “The Great Big No,” the first song from that album,” there were waves of nostalgia as much as it was about savoring that particular moment.
From where I was standing in the front row, I had some trouble hearing Dando’s vocals clearly (but perhaps I was just too close to the speakers). The instruments, though, were loud and clear. The frontman was often hunched over his guitar, hardly paused in between songs and barely conversed with the audience, except to make a quick intro about the next song: “This one is called ‘Down About It.’” The man has been playing in front of crowds for close to 30 years; the set was beginning to feel too rehearsed and mechanical.
But after a few songs, Dando veered away from the setlist (I could read it from the paper taped to the floor) and performed solo, asking the crowd for requests. Standouts were a sweet rendition of “Being Around,” and “Won’t You Sometimes Think Of Me,” and a couple of other songs that showed off unmistakable traces of country.
He brought the band back and performed “It’s About Time,” a personal favorite. They also did a well-applauded, if slightly erratic version of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” When they launched into “My Drug Buddy,” the feeling was one of communal bliss and satisfaction. It was like everyone was acutely aware that they were in the presence of something truly special. Ultimately it was fleeting (their songs are generally short, even by pop standards), but that only made it even more precious. People had their eyes closed, arms around each other, fists hitting the air, all the while mouthing the words along with Dando. This almost-physical conviviality would be multiplied tenfold with “Into Your Arms,” arguably their most radio-friendly single, and the one song that would likely be familiar even to non-fans.
Evan rocked out despite looking a bit, uh, spaced out
Photo by Stephen Lavoie
It was supposed to be the end of the show, but nobody was making a beeline for the exits. There were persistent screams every time the door beside the stage opened, hoping it was Dando. Just over five minutes later, he did come back onstage, alone, and did two more songs, including “My Favorite T.”
Nobody could have imagined The Lemonheads would ever make it to Manila, especially after they took a break in the late 1990s. After Dando resurrected the band in 2004, much of their fanbase had grown up and moved on, but there were a few that stuck around, still keeping the flames of veneration burning. The show was a reminder that bands like The Lemonheads were never meant to fill arenas and sell a gazillion albums. They’re the ones that appeal to a select few, who we keep close to our hearts, and whose music will mean something in our lives long after they fade into obscurity.