The dream of the 90s was alive in Washington, D.C. this past Wednesday evening, as a triple of bill of alt rock stalwarts took the stage at 9:30 Club. The rain may have been dampening things outside, but a 30s and 40s dominated crowd showed serious enthusiasm for the anthems of their youth.
Evan Dando, usually of The Lemonheads, takes the stage first, standing solo at center with a sea green electric Fender. His voice remains warm and sonorous, even as his stage demeanor is cold and distant. He’s become quite the enigma over time, alternating between offering tremendous, engaging sets and those that leave you feeling sad as he clinically works his way through his catalogue. Having witnessed dozens of his performances over the past two decades — from barn-burning band shows to drugged-out-of -his-gourd solo acoustic sets, it seems fair to say that the thing about Dando is that you never know what you’re going to get. If his goal is to be the indie Bob Dylan of his generation, well, it’s a misuse of his prodigious talent. He blows through about ten songs in a 24-minute set, clinical and uninspired; he barely manages to look up from the microphone. He ends his brief set with one of his many brilliant songs, The Lemonheads’ “Down About It.” No doubt this sentiment captures that of audience members hoping for something more, and the pregnant pause at the end of his set is punctuated by one such gentlemen belting out “Cheer Up!” as Dando ambles off, stage right. The songwriting remains brilliant, but the onetime alt-rock star is less inspired by the songs he has been belting out for decades than are his fans.
Soul Asylum follows, the Minneapolis quartet as primal and vibrant as teenagers. It’s a clinic in power pop genius; David Pirner works it…hard, expending more energy during their first song (“Growing Into You”) than occurred during the entirety of the preceding set. Already, their soar offsets Dando’s swoon, their joyful commitment to rock echoing the youthful sentiment that partisans were looking to tap into this evening.
They hit their first peak with “Misery,” the college-aged song sounding fresher and more vigorous in the live context than the recorded version could have possibly presaged. It’s a five-minute moment of rock and roll bliss, a moment where great songwriting and fire-forged showmanship merge together to form a cathartic elegy to the guitar-driven rock music that once ruled from sea to shining sea. In addition to its purifying power, it is perhaps the foremost demonstration of their card carrying membership in The House of (Paul) Westerberg.
The band goes (partially) acoustic with their contribution (“Summer of Drugs”) to Sweet Relief: A Benefit Album for Victoria Williams. This is the second performance of a track from that album this evening (Evan Dando performed “Frying Pan”), and one that hits its groove early and shows a kinship to Wilco that may have escaped some back in the present tense.
They turn up the temperature after moseying down memory lane, rocking out to “Black Gold.” The opening guitar riff sends chills out from the stage; it’s one of those tracks that resurrects times and places and moments of our dearly departed pasts. In these moments — which are numerous over the evening — the audience is a diaspora, coming together and sharing common cause by virtue of a once contiguous youth. In these moments, Pirner is dating Winona, MTV has something to do with music, and we’re united against ennui and our parents. It’s a powerful moment of shared sympathies, our existence again something more than digital drones, ones and zeroes in a corporate battle for dollars and cents.
Almost as powerful is “Without a Trace,” long a favorite track of those who dug deeper than the radio hits. Michael Bland‘s drumsticks smack toms like turkey legs, crashing down with furious precision. This is some seriously kinetic drumming, taking out anger and dissatisfaction and exacting revenge for unspecified wrongs. Damn…this feels familiar, it feels far removed from recent times, it feels good.
They go alt-country with “I Did My Best”…that aforementioned affinity with Wilco becoming more clear before diving right back to wonderfully ear-splitting anthemic rock of “Just Like Anyone.” They tantalize with the first cut off their latest record, “Gravity,” and what’s notable when comparing older and newer material is their sustained joie de vivre. It’s the key to this entire show, helping to summon up ghosts of the past during “Runaway Train,” complete with personal memories of a friend’s television’s yellowish green tint, its carved wooden box framing the iconic video. It’s still sad — all these years later — and causes waves of introspection. Their passion remains central as they move beyond those troubled thoughts, searching for catharsis with Pirner belting out, “I need somebody to shove / I want somebody to / shove me.” It seems that the electricity can’t possibly surge higher, but they dig a little deeper and bring their time with us to a close with a calamitous and chaotic version of “April Fool,” thundering riffs and unflagging energy whizzing about the stage.
After Soul Asylum’s scintillating set, there’s no way that Fountains of Wayne can be anything but anticlimactic. That’s unfortunate, obviously, because they’ve always been a fun, if underrated band that puts the pop in power pop. But, undeniably, they’re less rockin’ than Soul Asylum. It’s like watching a regular season game after game seven of the World Series…order matters, and FOW belongs in between the other two acts on this particular evening. At their best, FOW gives you the Matthew Sweet meets John K. Samson treatment. There’s something about them that’s endearing and a bit cute — for better and worse. In particular, it seems that Chris Collingwood‘s voice is best received in small doses, or, perhaps more accurately, is best paired with his bandmates’ when they sing refrains in unison.
They’re good at what they do, but what they do just doesn’t rise up to the levels of epicness now required. They hold out until the end of the night before playing one of their two most prominent singles, “Stacy’s Mom,” strangely leaving out “Denise” — a personal favorite — from what is in many ways a valedictory show. There’s nothing else particularly memorable or wrong with their set; it functions as a helpful come down period as the aging crowd heads into the night, reality returning with the recognition that they all have to go to work in the morning.
Terrible Photos: Eric Behrns