The famous quote attributed to Brian Eno concerning The Velvet Undergound’s debut album that although the album did not initially sell particularly well, every single person who bought a copy went out and formed a band. A similar phenomenon happened a few years later with the release of #1 Record, the first LP released by Memphis power-pop icons Big Star – an album that stalled at first, but slowly and surely gained a huge cult following within the burgeoning college rock scene which burst into life well after Big Star dissolved into nothingness in the late 1970s. The Lemonheads were part of this movement, taking cues from the summery vocal harmonies and clear jangling guitars but with an added edge, a grungy snarl fitting of the era, creating an intoxicating blend of the timeless and the timely. With new album ‘Varshons 2’ freshly released, the Boston Massachusetts outfit look both to their influences and their favourites, recording covers of Yo La Tengo, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Lucinda Williams, amongst others.
Support comes courtesy of HeyRocco, a 90s throwback trio who have taken up the alternative rock banner set by the likes of The Lemonheads and ran with it as fast as possible – the three-piece surging right out of the gate with supercharged Orange County pop-punk, which fades back into a loose, laid-back slacker-rock that could happily sit on a Sub-Pop compilation tape. Singer/guitarist Nathan Merll sounds the part as much as he looks it, with sardonic drawling vocals (not unlike Stephen Malkmus or J Mascis) managing to work both in and out of time with the powerful precise drumming of Tanner Cooper and his own cascading, angular guitar work. Playing from their debut album Teenage Movie Soundtrack along with selections from their EPs and singles, HeyRocco are classic grunge reimagined and made manifest, disjointed and jagged, stumbling through the Breeders-esque ‘Sugar And Honey’ and the malaise-filled ‘Mom Jeans’, curating the soundtrack of a lost Generation (X) mindset, a feeling of false nostalgia for a romanticised unremembered decade. The trio make everything look so effortless, enchanting the Ritz with their high-yet-low energy and catchy earworm songs.
More Posies than Pearl Jam, The Lemonheads take to the stage, humble and unassuming in flannel shirts and sweaters. Frontman Evan Dando’s powerpop roots take flight with tight harmonies over gorgeous guitar lines, catchy and exuberant despite the band’s quiet presence. The crowd are witness true master of the craft as the foursome burst into ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ and ‘Rudderless’, soaring arpeggios above a gently flowing bass with a pastoral feel underneath the distortion and drumwork, giving Dando’s slacker drawl room to breath, not entirely unlike contemporaries (and fellow Big Star fans) Teenage Fanclub. The four barely stop from the offset, each song bleeding into the next, blurring themselves together into a masterpiece of alternative rock.
The Lemonheads strip back for a significant portion of their set, going drum and bassless to highlight the classic Americana elements in their sound, although some residual grunge hangs on- notably in the sudden burst of discordant guitar during the laid-back slowdance of ‘My Idea’. Most of the songs in this format are covers, featured on both Varshon 2 and it’s predecessor. Gram Parsons’ ‘Brass Buttons’ and Smudges’ ‘Outdoor Type’ being the highlights, two beautiful, gentle renditions of countryfied powerpop that sit proudly next to The Lemonheads’ own ‘Being Around’ (serious question, I’d be interested to know if anyone has used ‘Being Around’ in their wedding video package, or even for their first dance)- Evan Dando harnessing his inner Alex Chilton as he weaves through, keeping the audience captivated throughout, with singalongs aplenty. The full band are reintroduced during ‘Confetti’, providing a sudden upswing in energy from both sides of the stage, allowing Dando and company to step straight back into their brand of feel-good alternative rock without breaking stride. While feeling very insular and introverted – the band barely acknowledging the audience – the music of The Lemonheads is able to resonate with generations of fans and remain as popular as ever.
The Lemonheads performed at the Ritz on Tuesday 12th February 2019. Words by Liam Moody.