Evan Dando is like a living, walking, breathing acid trip.
Everywhere the golden-haired, ageless one wanders, he sparks off surreal spells that enchant and confuse his immediate surroundings, morphing even the most placid of venues into temporarily warped portals catering strictly to his anarchic dedication to otherworldliness. One such venue was the tiny, 80-person-capacity art gallery known as Wonders Of Nature near the Williamsburg waterfront on a warm fall Saturday night.
Upon entering the storefront space one immediate observation came to mind: This former borderline superstar has certainly slipped many bruising notches down the showbiz ladder over the past two decades. How many magazine covers did this dude grace in the 90s? 300? A thousand? And didn’t The Lemonheads make the rounds at all the huge festivals in those years? And weren’t they still playing established clubs like Bowery Ballroom just a few years back? To go from all that mess to this “intimate” venue is quite a fall if you’re only measuring things based on drawing ability and cold, hard cash. But beings such as Evan D. just cannot be placed on such a strict and mortal measuring stick, which leads right into the second, and most important, observation of the night:
This is the type of venue Evan Dando was born for.
Hasn’t Evan D. always been too colorful and carefree for the established club circuit? His small but dedicated cult will regale you with many tales of missed start times, blown-through curfews, shows made up of nothing but obscure covers, forgetting to play “It’s A Shame About Ray”, and tour managers deserting mid-jaunt. In both attitude and presentation, Dando has always leaned more toward the wandering minstrel than the professional musician. So while for nearly any other former star the venue for this gig would have have represented a depressing career arch, for Evan it represents an artist finding himself, finally after a decades-long battle, right where he needs to be.
The girl at the door is barely checking tickets, concentrating more on smoking and texting while the 80-or-so Dando devotees wander in. There’s a tiny stage in a corner, a makeshift bar doing brisk business, and some rows of folded wooden chairs that the more age-challenged members of the Dando Cult, one of whom is his mother, make a beeline for and guard for the rest of the night like found treasure. So who are the non-related Dando cultists? From this crowd it can be deduced as expansive in age-range, 20-somethings up through those in their 60s, from indie rocker dudes in Husker Du tees to fawning female 90s refugees to strange British men in string vests who shout loudly abut the time they chopped out a line for Evan at something called “The Boogaloo Bar”. It’s a scene with a lot of depth, many dimensions involved, and one that is most definitely far out of place in the center of the cold heart of gentrified Williamsburg.
And then there’s Evan Dando himself, easily identified due to the blond shag that hasn’t aged a day since Lovey, sporting sparkly women’s flip flops, moving through the crowd and bowing to everyone he comes across. The vibe can honestly be described as Jesus-like, only it’s highly unlikely the son of god Himself would have popped down to the deli for a six pack like Evan does here, vanishing behind the curtain that forms the border to the makeshift “backstage” area. He doesn’t re-emerge for quite a while, a full half hour past the scheduled stage time to be exact, but his followers don’t seem to mind in the slightest. As a matter of fact, this act seems to be part of the fun for them. “How late will he be?” “Will he even come on stage at all?” “Did he already leave?” In a conversation with the woman next to me at the bar who was busy filming the empty stage with her iPhone, she made it clear to me that Evan begins playing when he feels like it. Suddenly this one-time MTV hero playing such a small, off-the-grid venue seems more like a stroke of genius than a career freefall.
If Evan only starts playing when he feels like it, then the mood struck him at 8:30 on this night. One would have thought that he would change out of the sparkly flip flops before facing his audience, but one would have thought wrong. Loud clapping. Hoots from the Britishers in the string vests. Evan wielding a Gibson acoustic. And immediately he fucks up. Several flat chords, a blown run, and he halts to tune up. It’s such a flop of an intro that it works for him. Had the Arctic Monkeys done this, the crowd would shriek in horror and demand their money back. In this setting, it is instead the perfect introduction to a defiantly unprofessional, brilliantly offbeat, and overall incredibly fun set of the type one never sees from name-brand musicians.
How many songs did Evan Dando play at Wonders Of Nature on Saturday night? 30? 50? A hundred? In the beginning acoustic set alone it seemed as if he ran through nearly every Lemonheads semi-hit and deep cut plus the bulk of his lone solo album, songs meshing into one another, sputtering to a halt, picking up where he left off several songs later. For example, my fave Dando song, the Manson-inspired ballad “Ride With Me”, is actually played twice, once while he’s tuning his guitar (how one does this, who knows) and joking with someone in the front row about his sex life, then another time in a clear, ringing version that really drew the previously-hidden melancholy out from under the weight of the track. How Evan D. can so utterly sabotage a song, then turn around and give it such a gentle, loving reading, is just one of the man’s many chaos magic hat tricks that he brings to the table.
For an individual whose Wikipedia page is front and center with a story about losing his voice due to crack abuse, Evan Dando sure can fucking sing. I don’t recall his voice being anywhere near as good as this during his golden god days of the 90s. On “Tenderfoot” the entire second verse was rendered in a perfectly framed falsetto that swooned out in all the right places, notes held for precious seconds, revealing great meaning in lyrics that previously rang as cryptic. On “Style” he dropped into a bassy, Leonard Cohen monotone that would be tough to pull off for anyone who doesn’t smoke or gargle with broken glass (Evan certainly has the former covered). Other times he deliberately allowed his vocals to falter, either to do a rough take service or simply to get laughs, like on the famous, drawn-out “Raaaaayyyyy” section of “It’s A Shame” where he let the vocal drop just to score a key anti climax. You see, when you’re dealing with Evan Dando, it’s the mistakes that truly count.
At one point, during “Being Around”, when he got to the line, “Would you get down on your knees and scrub me”, Evan made his guitar imitate the sound of a rag scrubbing a floor. I didn’t know an acoustic could make such a noise. Another time, in the middle of a long-winded Elvis Costello cover, he dueted with a squeaky-breaked MTA bus outside for the entire middle section of the song, somehow making it all tie together. Evan often forgot lyrics over the course of the evening, relying on one helpful devotee a couple chairs back who would fill him in, even on the covers. Should this guy have gotten some of the proceeds from this show? Yes, absolutely. Was this show like hanging out in your own living room with a bunch of friends as Evan Dando plays guitar and sings and has conversations? You know it. Not bad for 25 bucks.
There were other duets over the course of the evening, some random kid summoned out of the crowd to pull off a convincing Paul Westerberg ballad, and Marciana Jones for a number of tracks, standing stock still and smiling as their voices intertwined like Gram & Emmylou at a drunken rehearsal session. It took several verses to accept that they were actually covering a fucking Florida Georgia Line bro-country song, and then just seconds to concede that their version is stunningly gorgeous against nearly insurmountable odds. It was the same type of situation for Misfits classic “Skulls”, busted out after Evan plugged in a beautiful SG for the “electric” portion of the evening, which rang with far more whimsy and nuance than a song about nailing little girl’s heads to a wall had any right to.
At certain points during the electric set I wondered if perhaps the dude was going to play all night. Marciana was back on stage for a while, but I was distracted by a small misunderstanding between one of the string vest Britishers and a kid in Elton John-inspired shades that started as a near violent confrontation but ended with the two of them smoking on the sidewalk and embracing for many minutes. When you fall into one of these Dando dimensions, time becomes a warped concept and all facts are fluid. Anything is possible within this space, including Lucinda Williams covers that somehow sound like HOVDY deep cuts, something that DID happen during this gig, although I would be hard pressed to tell you where in the setlist it took place. Like I said, it all bleeds together in the best possible sense. And did he really make a joke about not being able to play guitar because he wasn’t getting laid enough…while dueting with his girlfriend in front of nearly a hundred people? That’s not just something I would make up, right?
And then, just when you think this may be an epic occasion where Dando plays until sunlight, until there are just a few passed out stragglers left and a lone cleaning lady mops the floors, when in the middle of a jangling “Into Your Arms” Dando unstraps the SG, lays it down, says “thanks”, and ambles off.
And yet even then the show wasn’t over. Evan may have vanished back behind the curtain, but at least half the crowd remained, drinking and trading Dando tales, one of which involved his bringing a bale of hay onstage from a nearby field at a show Upstate. For the world of Evan Dando is as circular as it is surreal, and I got the distinct sense that this show will be spoken of in the same way years down the line after yet another of these convention-smashing performance art displays.
It isn’t often that you leave a show thinking about anything other than whether to take a train or an uber. But after stumbling, for several glorious hours, into the tripped-out slipstream of Evan Dando I left believing that there really are no barriers, not age or cultural climates or whitewashed industries, that can ever truly stop the twin concepts of music and good times.