Vulnerability is Punk: The Lemonheads at the OC Observatory
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of their iconic 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray, The Lemonheads brought their signature blend of punk, grunge, and folk influences to a passionate crowd at The Observatory. With the night being built up of multiple acts including their magnum opus album in full, an acoustic segment, and a collection of hits from their other material; the show was a dedication to the fans that have followed them with devotion since the beginning. While The Lemonheads are underrated in how they are not always included in conversations about 90’s grunge and indie rock music, their influence can still be felt in underground alternative music today and it was apparent how much their music means to the fans who experienced it during the peak of their popularity with how much love for the band that could be felt in the room that night.
As soon as The Lemonheads casually approached the stage, it was immediately clear that their image embodies the DIY grassroots of independent music from their minimalist stage presence to the crudely designed “L H” logo on their drum set made out of green duct tape. Compared to seeing most 90’s alternative rock artists nowadays, The Lemonheads did feel much more like traveling back to a simpler time where a band could just play their songs to people who love their music and didn’t need the stage effects or rockstar-like personas that are so common in live performances today. If you’re wanting to experience true nostalgia for the grunge era, there aren’t many experiences more authentic than seeing The Lemonheads live.
The Lemonheads’ frontman Evan Dando sings in a droney and melancholy tone that contrasts beautifully with the upbeat jangle pop instrumentals to create a euphoric aura, almost feeling like nodding off into an opiate-filled dream with how despondent but blissful their sound is. With how common the themes related to drug use can be found in their music, this dreamlike sound is masterful in bringing these lyrics to life. While Dando’s songwriting and vocal style are focused on their vulnerability, he does have a charismatic presentation that keeps the energy in the room at a high level even during slower tracks. I was surprised by how much influence from the Grateful Dead can be found in their sound with incorporations of bluegrass and folk music, especially during their live performances with the extended jam sessions and solos that reinvent each track. While the beginning of the set felt like an intro warming up to the full album performance that would come later, the bright and poppy love song “Into Your Arms” is one of The Lemonheads’ most memorable classics, and the excitement in the room began to build rapidly during its heartfelt performance.
After performing many of their hits that aren’t on It’s A Shame About Ray, The Lemonheads completely swung the set into a different direction as Evan Dando switched to an acoustic guitar while the rest of the band walked off stage. While I’m personally not the biggest fan of acoustic music, it was incredible to see The Lemonheads transform their set so drastically in such a short amount of time. The acoustic segment really felt like it could have been a headlining set on its own if it were in a bar or open mic club, and the intimate atmosphere could not have been more suited for the barebones nature of The Lemonheads.
After the relaxed and personal acoustic segment of the set, the energy in the room completely changed when The Lemonheads broke into the first track “Rockin’ Stroll” from the album being celebrated, It’s A Shame About Ray. The album never loses momentum throughout, almost sounding like one extended song with how seamlessly the tracks flow into each other feeling like a long road trip. The audience was along for the ride, singing along gleefully to fan-favorites on the album such as the slower, floaty song “My Drug Buddy” and the faster punk-influenced “Alison’s Starting To Happen”. While The Lemonheads did not play their hit cover of “Mrs. Robinson ” by Simon and Garfunkle (probably their most popular song), the song was always a bonus track on the album that feels more added on rather than being a fundamental part of its vision. With the set approaching nearly 2 hours in length, it was apparent that diehard fans were more than pleased with the expansive setlist that was curated for the celebratory evening.
With the explosion in popularity of college rock and alternative rock in the 1990’s, there was a significant shift from the more down-to-earth and experimental nature of the scene into many bands taking on a more mainstream rock sound in order to appeal to radio trends of the time. Bands like The Lemonheads were essential in holding indie and college rock to the individualistic roots of the scene, with their less conventional incorporation of genres like folk, bluegrass, and power-pop into their grunge-y aesthetic. Before the plague of the hipster movement that the 00’s brought, indie music was focused on being as independent as possible in climates that were not as welcoming to free-thinking artists who refused to be limited to any style in particular. It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if bands like The Lemonheads didn’t stick to their guns in their desire to simply play the unique music that they wanted to without any of the gimmicks expected out of mainstream college rock bands in that period. If you have a passion for independent music at all, or want to experience the roots of indie rock with the minimalist presentation that it grew out of, there are few artists that have retained these virtues more than The Lemonheads.
Words by: Danny Ryan
Photos by: Todd Anderson