The Dream of the 80s is Alive (in Britain)

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If you came of age in the 1980s watching John Hughes‘ films, or in the 1990s watching Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder lament reality, you are probably a fan of The Psychedelic Furs and The Lemonheads, respectively, if not collectively. Both bands inhabited a similar space in their own decades, offering up key tracks on their generation’s soundtrack and in many ways embodying the times around them. Although both bands wrote impeccably catchy songs of lasting value, a couple of decades later, the 1980s British model is in much better working condition than the 1990s American-made varietal…as witnessed during last week’s double bill at DC’s historic Howard Theatre that featured The Lemonheads opening for The Psych Furs.

The Lemonheads

If you are even moderately familiar with The Lemonheads, the news that Juliana Hatfield was advertised and scheduled to perform with the band — after decades of drama and drugs and denial and drugs — seemed almost too good to be true.  And that’s because it was. We’re not sure where Juliana was, what happened, or why her presence was advertised but not delivered. But, it’s safe to say that the band’s partisans were disappointed after such a promising build-up. A blonde guest musician played keys on one song (or at least stood near a keyboard in the back), but if that was Juliana it sure wasn’t the Juliana that harmonized and played guitar and turned pubescent 90s teens into blubbering idiots at her every breathless uttering.

And maybe Mr. Lemonhead himself, Evan Dando, was similarly bummed out by her announced presence and pronounced absence, because he turned in a perfunctory performance that ranks among the worst encountered in the approximately 25 times our paths have crossed.  Dando appeared ravaged by the years, and disinterested in anything other than getting off of the stage as soon as humanly possible.  Now, this wasn’t as bad as the time he stopped and restarted “Drug Buddy” ten times because he couldn’t remember the chord progressions or the lyrics — because of drugs — but his diffidence was as big of a letdown as his erstwhile drug buddy/girlfriend’s absence.

That being said, compared to some of the venues he and various iterations of The Lemonheads have played in recent years, the sound at the Howard Theatre is stellar (after the venue’s $30 million renovation) and showcased the band’s tightly wound musical twine, even if Dando couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge his role as frontman. Seeing them as an opening band is a twist, and while they didn’t suffer from the “opening band mix” they also weren’t graced with much in the way of a light show. Not that there was much to see.

In a 30 minute set, they burned through dog-eared crowd favorites with Dando and his downward gazing eyes often mumbling a quick thanks before each song had fully run its course. He offered no emotional connection to the songs or his audience, with his chords stopping abruptly and effectively muting any of the intrinsic emotivity of the original composition. While the musicality of his guitar playing and the timber of his voice remain intact, it felt like a zombie impersonating one of the most talented artists of the 1990s. (Note: Kids, this is your brain on drugs). And, not to belabor this point, but there was no Juliana to bring him out of his ghostly stupor.  And those unassailably beautiful, emotional songs — those songs where harmonies and the duality of the relationship described are intrinsic features — are missing something without her soft counterpoint. The bassist and drummer on this tour (Dando interchanges the other two musicians in the band weekly it seems) did an admirable job of trying to bring life to the show, but they were mostly sabotaged by their frontman.

In a word, the performance was kind of… rudderless, if you will. But, even so, the songs are just so damn good. Even twenty years later, the songs were the only gateway drug we ever really needed.

The Psychedelic Furs

The crowd continued to assemble during The Lemonheads set, even on a tough night… this bill was competing with Monday Night Football, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, and, most importantly in D.C., the final Presidential debate. And the demographic coming to see The Lemonheads isn’t full of spring chickens, let alone those coming to see The Psychedelic Furs. For this demographic, 10pm on a Monday generally means putting the kids to bed and maybe unwinding with a glass of cabernet. So, the crowd wasn’t exactly as large as The Psychedelic Furs merit.

But what a contrast they brought to the stage….if you thought synth-infused New Wave couldn’t rock the casbah, this performance would have changed your mind.

The Psychedelic Furs hit the stage like they were playing Wembley Stadium, bringing verve, swagger and energy to their performance, as if to defiantly announce to the crowd that not only are they still on the scene, they still ARE the scene. Any hint that this was a nostalgia act phoning it in for the paycheck was quickly extinguished, as the band launched into hits like “Love My Way,” “Heartbreak Beat” and “Mr. Jones” with a new-found hunger.

At the front of the stage, Richard Butler gave a clinic in how to be a compelling rock-n-roll frontman, as saying to Evan Dando, “step aside sonny, let me show you how this is done.” With attitude and audience high-fives to spare, he preened, crooned and flirted like a man half his age, his zeal for performing live readily apparent. With Butler’s brother Tim (also looking none worse for wear despite the years) providing support on bass and saxophonist Mars Williams and drummer Paul Garisto — who have been with the band since the Midnight to Midnight album — anchoring the sound, the band was crisp and tight without sounding clinical.

As the set wore on, the audience was reminded that not only did the Furs rack up an impressive number of hits (both in the US and UK), but that the song still hold up — “Pretty in Pink,” “The Ghost in You,” “Heaven,” and “Highwire Days” all packed a punch. And this wasn’t a mere trip down memory lane– in the middle of this year’s election season, “President Gas” sounded as relevant now as when it was released. The inclusion of deep track “India” during the encore was an unexpected treat and allowed the band to flex their musical muscle and showcase their estimable skill.

The final notes of “India” were still ringing in our ears as the Howard Theater emptied into the quiet Monday night streets. But it was not the sound of nostalgia for a decade long gone or a youth long ago lost. It was the sound of triumph, attitude and urgency. It was the sound that sent us on this journey long ago. It was the sound of now.

– By Behrnsie and Erik Huey

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.