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Dando's lost weekend

A decade later, the Lemonheads return with the rock

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As lost weekends go, Evan Dando's retreat from reality was a corker.

Let's flash-back to 1992. Grunge rules rock, and heroin often fuels the descent into the dark. Rave culture peaks, with everyone and their mom rolling on X. Gangsta rap's hopped up on the chronic, and metal's so loaded on booze and coke, even its patron saint Beelzebub winds up under the table. And Dando seems poised to put all their excesses to shame.

At the time, the lanky Bostonian fronted the Lemonheads, a revolving-cast trio whose major label debut for Atlantic, It's a Shame About Ray, went from cult favorite to platinum-seller almost overnight. Dando was the square-jawed, cool-coiffed slacker with the warm stoned baritone, dissolute-yet-waggish lyrics, and effortless pop punk and country rock songwriting skills. His talent and poster-boy looks had kingmakers like MTV and the NME salivating -- here was a less-menacing alternative alternative-rocker to Kurt Cobain, whose hostility to the music industry and heroin habit spoke of inevitable implosion.

But Dando turned out to be no more reliable and a lot less bankable. He was already a mess by the time the Lemonheads' disappointing follow-up, Come On Feel the Lemonheads, emerged a year later. As if the appearance of Rick James on the record wasn't omen enough, the erratic press junket for the record disintegrated from victory lap into Behind the Music episode. Dando confessed without regret to his fondness for hard drugs and went from intriguing underdog to over-exposed rock cliché without spending any discernible time in between.

How bad was Dando's drug habit? Well, how high do you have to be to go clubbing with Courtney Love, show up hours late for your Glastonbury gig, and become the inspiration for the Die Evan Dando Die anti-fanzine?

"I was never very careful about stuff and neither was my management," Dando recently told Harp magazine. "I think they saw me as someone who was going to politely overdose."

Yet even Dando noticed the train-wreck ahead because he tried moderation for the next Lemonheads' record, 1996's Car Button Cloth. To the surprise of no one, it didn't stick. There were still signs of his pop chops, but the record was the messy work of an unfocused mind, and kind of an über-downer, to boot. There was no major tour to push it, either, a sure sign that Atlantic was done with Dando; the divorce papers went through a year later.

What followed was a blurry slideshow. Dando dropped off the music radar, popping up in Australia -- where he'd relocated -- and releasing an erratic import-only live disc. Later, there was an infamous solo gig at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, his first U.S. appearance in seven years. Behaving oddly but for the most part delivering the performance goods, Dando left the stage mid-song and burst through the fire exit to demolish a beat-box in the alley some cheeky fan had left blasting Ray's cover of "Mrs. Robinson," the song that put the Lemonheads on the map.

Shortly after, however, Dando's comeback went from rumor to reality when he re-emerged with a subdued-but-promising solo record in 2003, Baby, I'm Bored. Dando even managed to tour behind it without self-immolating. A stint as the front-man of the MC5 tour followed, then talk of a Lemonheads' reunion surfaced. Dando drafted ex-Descendents Karl Alvarez and Bill Stevenson to fill the ever-revolving rotation. Their eponymous 2006 release -- the band's eighth -- turned out to be Dando's most confident, consistent and pleasing set of songs since Ray. He even had enough songwriting cache left to get cameos from Gibby Haynes, J. Mascis and Garth Hudson.

In keeping with the nature of heavyweight blackouts, The Lemonheads exists outside time -- like the natural follow-up to Ray without all those intervening years to make it an embarrassing exercise in nostalgia. Dando's turn-of-phrase magic is intact, as are the Buzzcocks-meet-Simon & Garfunkel pop punk and Gram Parsons-in-New England country-rock. But Dando's having fun again, and it sounds like it.

Does it mean the 40-year-old has found God and renounced his love of chemicals and alcohol? Burned before, Dando is justifiably recalcitrant to discuss that in interviews. Unlike some other rock & roll casualties, however, his overindulgence always seemed born out of a lust for life, not an escape from it. And even though he says the new record's narratives are his least personal, he's often been an open book on record: "Addictively, I'll stick to the safety of the script," Dando sings on "No Backbone," but "I know I'll end up settling for a less-than-perfect fit."

The Lemonheads play Amos' SouthEnd Sunday with Vietnam. Doors for the all-ages show open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $15 ($18 the day of the show). www.amossouthend.com

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