The Madrid Theatre started its life as a silent movie house and has had many lives since then. Today it's largely an event space booked for fancy wedding receptions and fancier company Christmas parties. Occasionally, it is pressed into duty hosting live music – often over the complaints of the neighborhood's more affluent residents who dislike the noise and the parked cars and the noise people make when walking to their parked cars. Its atypical lighting and towering stage make it an odd venue for music on any night. On a night that called for a rock club and not an 800-person Spanish-revival theatre, it was simply wrong.
The night started with Austin's On Being an Angel. The band is fresh and new and young. It's led by the vocals and guitar of Paige Applin, with Nolan Nevels (bass), Nick Flitton (guitar), and Carson Wilcox (drums) completing the quartet. The band was given a very short set to make an impression, but it delivered with six or seven songs that recalled the early '90s alternative rock heyday of full guitars and tuneful songs – which is just what the audience had come to see. Applin's voice is high and clear, it's never pushed, yet somehow it still sat firmly and confidently on top the band's compositions. It was a highlight, as were Flitton's dynamic and crush-worthy solos, and the Nevel's chords that added hazy goodness to the tunes. As I watched the band, high up on the stage, separated from the audience, I considered what venue I hoped to see them in when they return. I miss Riot Room.
After the openers cleared their gear from the stage, it was quickly turned over to Bass Drum of Death. This band has seen a lot of venues in the last fifteen years of touring, not only coast to coast, but also in Europe. It may have even seen one like this. The band began as a solo project for Mississippian John Barrett who performed with a microphone, a guitar, and a bass drum that he could kick. It was primitive and wild – just the sort of thing that his local label Fat Possum could latch onto. Today, Barrett leaves the drumming to Eric Parisi, and has brought along kid brother Jim Barrett on second guitar, but the band is just as wild, favoring a more-is-more approach to its garage rock.
With only thirty minutes to work with, the band started strong playing "I Wanna Be Forgotten" from its 2013 self-titled second record. It's all ringing and raging guitars and snapping drums. Like many of its songs, this one establishes a groove right up front and then pounds on it for two minutes. Overblown guitars dominate nearly every song, with winding leads and big solos ever-present. When the blues leak in, listeners might hear ZZ Top. When the riff has a big enough hook (as it does in "Get Found"), Jon Spencer comes to mind. Both brothers provided vocals, but no one should expect blood harmonies – the band doesn't do nuance.
John spent most of the night hidden under his mop of hair, and then further veiled in the shadowy portion of the stage untouched by the venue's odd lighting rig that includes no lights that face the band. Between songs he made a few shout outs to the other acts, but otherwise the band's ten-song set was all business.
While the band didn't click with The Lemonheads fans quite the way the opener had, several audience members were elated by the trio, singing along to every song. Afterwards I heard one ask the other "Why the f*ck aren't they headlining?" It's a good question. And they should be. I miss Davey's.
The roadies were out in full force as the stage was prepared for The Lemonheads. There's a lot of history that can be shared about the band – its roots as a punk duo in Boston, its constantly-changing line up, its commercial breakthrough in the early '90s, frontman Evan Dando's battle with drugs, aborted albums with a myriad of producers, and more. Do they still make Behind the Music? Surely The Lemonheads warrant one. Of course, the formula for that program either required a happy ending where a rejuvenated band faced a bright future, or needed a dour finale, hammering home the consequences of misdeeds and hard living. Neither apply to Evan Dando and his Lemonheads. He's still an unreliable frontman leading a chaotic musical adventure whose future is unknown. As morbid as it sounds, that uncertainty is surely one factor that brought audiences out for this (mostly) sold-out tour of the US and Europe. The other factor, a much more palatable one, is the 30th anniversary of the band's breakthrough album It's a Shame About Ray. It's a masterful piece of alternative rock and power pop, and the current band is playing it in its entirety. That is indeed something to celebrate.
The show began as it should – with a scraggly Evan Dando on stage alone, attempting to tune a twelve-string guitar and muttering to his guitar tech. Soon he gave up on the acoustic guitar and the jangle it would have provided, picked up an electric, and launched into a cover of "The Outdoor Type." Dando sounded better than he looked, and hearing the song was like reuniting with a lost love. The audience sang loudly. Two more solo songs followed, before the stage lights were brought up, summoning Dando's rhythm section to join him for the track-by-track playthrough of the twelve songs from It's a Shame About Ray.
This second act also got off to a rocky start. Two days prior, the band's drummer had fallen ill, forcing Bill Stevenson (known for his work in The Descendents, but also one of the many, many drummers Dando has employed for The Lemonheads through the years) to join bassist Farley Glavin in order to rescue several dates. Song beginnings and endings were timid affairs with lots of eye contact used to signal changes, yet through it both Dando and Stevenson smiled broadly, enjoying the absurdity, enjoying each other, and treating the night not as a performance in a theatre, but rather a low-stakes gig at a bar. That's the vibe I wanted. The sound was ramshackle even through the glorious title track, but by the time the band hit mid-album highlight, "My Drug Buddy," things started to click. The audience was now euphoric and singing even louder. For album closer (a cover of Gait MacDermot's "Frank Mills"), Dando went it alone. Or he attempted to, but when things got shaky, the audience was right there with the lyrics.
Dando remained on stage alone for the band's third act. This acoustic portion of the set was both the most chaotic and rewarding, providing the audience a glimpse into the mind of Dando as he strummed into and out of songs as they came to him. He touched portions of several songs but put great effort into covers of Smudge's "Divan," Chris Brokaw's "My Idea," and two Townes Van Zandt songs ("I'll Be Here in the Morning" and "Snow Don't Fall"). In this act, Dando was focused. His voice was loud and clear and sensitive, as if a light had suddenly turned on. Soon he switched back to electric guitar and asked the crowd for requests. Three more came including The Misfit's "Skulls" and Richard and Linda Thompson's "Withered and Died." By now the crowd had started to wither themselves, with only 100 fans remaining in the theatre.
There was a fourth act as the full band returned for five more songs, including a version of "Into Your Arms" that was simply majestic, and a telling of "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You" that rang true. But it was loose, and it was sloppy. And it was only for the fans. It wasn't much after 11:00, yet the show felt like 2am at a dive bar when the drunken band (and mostly just the band) is just having too much fun to quit. One of those mythical shows where nearly everyone but the staff last left, but those that remained talk about for years with varying degrees of disgust and admiration. But this wasn't a dive bar at 2am, it was a fancy theatre, and people streamed out the door. The vibe was positively weird.
A fifth and final act came as an unplanned encore, the applause of the 50 fans remaining in the room brought the jolly band back out onto stage for one final number. Afterwards the band disappeared from the stage for the last time.
For fans of the rickety world of Evan Dando, the night was divine. For casual fans interested in seeing the band whose cover of "Mrs. Robinson" soundtracked their college years, the night was likely too much – in fact, the band didn't play that famous cover and rarely does. Personally, I hoped Dando left the stage, had a big glass of water, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with a hearty whole grain bread, and will be ready to return to Kansas City on the next tour. Let's do that one at Record Bar.