Scanning the packed audience at the Middle East a week ago Wednesday ó mainly earnest, dressed-down, thirtysomethings ó it wasnít hard to figure where Evan Dandoís getting most of his support these days. These are all the grown-up versions of the sensitive kids who came of age when Itís a Shame About Ray (Atlantic) was released 11 years ago. For them a Dando show is a blast of nostalgia, and a song like "My Drug Buddy" brings the same romantic buzz that an even older audience might get from, say, "More than a Feeling."
Only Dandoís drug buddies know for sure if the notoriously troubled former Lemonhead is really keeping his nose clean these days. But he certainly seemed to have his act together at the Middle East. He was genial and wasted no time between songs, mixing old Lemonheads crowd-pleasers with similarly styled new ones from his solo debut Baby Iím Bored (Bar/None). As a songwriter (and a borrower of other peopleís songs, notably Bee Leeís and Tom Morganís), Dando still exudes a winning breeziness. His lyrics often allude to personal shake-ups but leave you with the reassuring feeling that itís no big deal. Lines like "All my life I thought I needed all the things I didnít need at all" (from the new "All My Life") arenít far removed from old ones like "A ship without a rudderís like a ship without a rudderís like a ship without a rudder" (from í92ís "Rudderless").
What made this show special was Dandoís backup band. Guitarist Chris Brokaw and drummer George Berz brought the songs within a few inches of heavy metal without overpowering Dandoís essential pop warmth. The new tunes were heavier and more fleshed out than on Baby Iím Bored. Brokawís playing was polite and jangly when he first joined Dandoís band two years ago. But heís now worked in some of the shredding characteristic of his guitar work in Come and Consonant. The real treat was seeing Juliana Hatfield as the bassist ó both because sheís a terrific bass player and because the vocal interactions between her and Dando lent Itís A Shame About Ray much of its heart. Also, after guesting on Ray she never did tour with the band. So her presence in the line-up was a long overdue pleasure, particularly when she and Dando harmonized on "My Drug Buddy" and "The Great Big No."
Dando closed the show alone with an acoustic guitar and unearthed "I Wish I Was Him," a song Ben Lee wrote 10 years ago about wanting to be Evan Dando. It was a vintage Dando moment, honoring his own notoriety while letting his audience in on the joke; and it again showed why the fans have stuck around.