Thursday 29 November 2012,
HMV Institute, Birmingham
“It’s so good to hear you sing again,” drawls a clearly elated Evan Dando to Juliana Hatfield towards the end of their set at the HMV Insitute in Digbeth, Birmingham. It is one of the few things he says the whole evening, but there is no doubt that he speaks for the majority of the audience, at a gig that appears to mark a new period of combined creativity for the two equally billed headline artists.
When I found out that Dando (Lemonheads frontman and sporadic solo artist) and Hatfield (solo artist and previously singer/guitarist in the Blake Babies, the Juliana Hatfield Three (obviously) and Some Girls) were coming to England to perform some acoustic gigs, I got tickets immediately. The two stalwarts of the Boston alt-rock scene, alongside the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., the Throwing Muses and Belly, have collaborated on each other’s records since the late 80s and throughout their early 90s heyday, with Hatfield notably playing bass and singing backing vocals on the Lemonheads’ classic It’s a Shame about Ray album (1992), yet I had, regrettably, never seen them perform live on stage together. I had, however, seen, a 2006 version of the Lemonheads, featuring Bill Stevenson and Josh Lattanzi, perform at the Bristol Academy (complete with fanatical stage-invading females), when I mourned the absence of Hatfield’s exuberant girlish vocals on such peerless songs as ‘Rudderless’, ‘The Great Big No’, ‘My Drug Buddy’ (possibly my favourite song ever) and ‘It’s About Time’. On that occasion, I filled in Hatfield’s vocal part on ‘It’s About Time’ myself, no doubt to the consternation of those standing next to me (my falsetto isn’t really all that impressive). I also remember subsequently buying tickets to see Hatfield at the London Astoria in 1995, when she was promoting what was supposed to be her breakthrough album, Only Everything, only to find her pulling out of the gig (and the whole tour) because of ‘nervous exhaustion’.
So I was in a state of anticipation about seeing Hatfield on stage at the HMV Institute in Digbeth, Birmingham, particularly after she had announced via Twitter her decision to drop out of some recent Autumn live dates with Evan and his band supporting the Psychedelic Furs in the States (“i hate to have to say this but due to unforeseen circumstances i won’t be able to join the lemonheads on bass this month as planned. so sorry”) as well as a gig or two with Evan sans band in Europe. She is, it has to be said, a tad unreliable, while Evan has also been known for letting his audiences down during his drug-addled mid-90s phase, when I remember seeing a sea of disgruntled faces in the vicinity of the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury 95 after he failed to turn up for his Saturday afternoon slot, subsequently appearing three hours later to get booed off-stage by angry Portishead fans.
Despite past ‘incidents’, I arrive at the gig at the Institute without hearing of any cancellation, though I do discover that the show is being relocated from ‘The Library’ to a smaller room upstairs called ‘The Temple’, further finding out, to my disappointment, that there is to be no support act prior to Evan and Juliana’s scheduled appearance at 9pm. I therefore have to content myself with some Pavement tunes on the PA until the alloted time, when the two headline artists decide to shuffle onto the stage, like some vagrants from the local Digbeth Coach Station, for a sound check.
Dando and Hatfield’s unceremonious appearance onstage sets the tone for the gig, which proves to be a shambolic and unpolished affair, though in a thoroughly charming and engaging way. The two singers, obviously very comfortable with each other and old pros at handling heckles from the audience, proceed to pull out songs that have been variously described as ‘country rock’, ‘grunge’, ‘bubblegum grunge’ and ‘jangly pop’ from the length and breadth of their careers, together with a smattering of covers. They kick off with Dando’s reflective ‘All My Life’ from his Baby I’m Bored album (2003) and thereby set a pattern of taking it in turns to sing their own tunes, with the other lending vocal and instrumental support when necessary. Dando usually strums acoustically, with his country-inflected voice in wonderfully rich form, and Hatfield plays lead. And though Dando’s songs tend to outweigh Hatfield’s slightly, the two singers have equal stage time here.
Hatfield reveals what she has been doing lately by performing songs from her lesser-known recent albums, beginning with the sombre ‘Butterflies’ from Peace and Love (2010), a record that she produced and engineered herself. Evan then picks up the pace with old-favourite ‘Hospital’, with a slightly wobbly guitar solo from Hatfield who is still seemingly trying to get into her stride. But then they both pull off a glorious version of ‘It’s About Time’, which, for me, is one of the high points of the evening – just to hear Juliana sing ‘sunshiiiiine’ on a song on which she clearly belongs and should never be separated. Evan then pulls out another Lemonheads classic, the humorous country-tinged ‘The Outdoor Type’, wherein he claims never to have even owned a sleeping bag, ‘let alone a mountain bike’, after which Juliana remarks, ‘you know, he actually IS the outdoor type’. The liar!
The two singers continue to whisper into each other’s ears about where they will be heading next, tunewise, before Juliana launches into her most famous song from the days of grunge, ‘My Sister’, when it is great to hear her still complaining about her aggravating sibling (actually her brother’s girlfriend, so I recall from her book). They then unite for a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, which is a bit of a mess, before Juliana suggests doing the song “about the record company guy” (‘Paid to Smile’), another Lemonheads song on which she sings, though clearly struggles to remember! Then there is a request from the audience for ‘$1000 Dollar Wedding’, a song which they both recorded in 1999 for the Gram Parsons tribute album Return of the Grievous Angel, though Juliana surprises us again by voicing her dislike for the Dando-favourite country-rock pioneer, suggesting that he was in fact just a rich poser. She therefore sits to the side of the stage as Evan pulls off a word-perfect version of Gram’s ‘Streets of Baltimore’.
Hatfield returns with a fine version of the Teenage Fanclub song ‘Cells’, having toured with the band herself and included it on her August 2012 covers record, even though it does contain probably the most depressing lyric I have ever come across (‘I don’t preach, and I don’t pray, but I can feel the slow decay’). She follows this with her own ‘Candy Wrappers’ from 2011, this time from an album put together with the monetary contribution of her hardcore fans. And then it happens: Evan leads off with the warmly received ‘My Drug Buddy’ and I realise that it was worth the price of admission just to hear this one song.
After the encore, Juliana messes up her guitar part on one of her early songs, ‘Nirvana’ (written in admiration of the Seattle grunge outfit’s first album Bleach, in case you were wondering), before Evan returns one last time for ‘Big Gay Heart’. The culmination of the gig therefore leaves you with no clue whatsoever regarding any fresh songs that we might expect to feature on the hotly anticipated new Lemonheads album, which, we are told, will feature not only Hatfield but also band cofounder Ben Deily (who left in 1989), together with Ryan Adams on production and drumming duties. For while it is splendid to hear Dando and Hatfield going over familiar territory at tonight’s gig, I am anxious to hear them hitting new and daring heights on what is being billed as a ‘punkier’ new record.
(The lead singer is noted in brackets, this usually being the writer too, and the cover versions are also noted.)
- All My Life (Dando)
- Butterflies (Hatfield)
- Choose Drugs (Hatfield)
- Hospital (Dando)
- Ride With Me (Dando)
- Somebody is Waiting for Me (Hatfield)
- It’s About Time (Dando)
- The Outdoor Type (Dando)
- Baby Gets High (Hatfield)
- My Sister (Hatfield)
- Pale Blue Eyes (Dando and Hatfield) (Velvet Underground cover)
- Into Your Arms (Dando)
- Paid to Smile (Dando)
- Streets of Baltimore (Dando) (Gram Parsons cover, though originally a hit for Bobby Bare)
- Ugly (Hatfield)
- Shots is Fired (Dando)
- Cells (Hatfield) (Teenage Fanclub cover)
- Candy Wrappers (Hatfield)
- Layin up with Linda (Dando) (GG Allin)
- Waiting for Heaven (Hatfield)
- My Drug Buddy (Dando)
- Nirvana (Hatfield)
- I Picked You Up (Hatfield)
- Big Gay Heart (Dando)