Taste of Chicago music bookings this year appear to have been done in a fairly shoddy manner. Last Sunday’s performance by Soul Asylum was announced only weeks before the actual show (and was absent entirely from the city’s initial press release touting the 2011 music schedule) and left many fans scratching their heads.
Bookings of major acts in years past (Stevie Wonder, Counting Crows, etc.) have been replaced this year by acts, who while by no means bad, have a far smaller appeal. The city went this route in an apparent effort to decrease attendance and spend less on security (at least for the time being while Mayor Emanuel decides whether to resurrect a previously announced plan aimed at beefing up The Taste and charging admission).
The Lemonheads last performed at Petrillo Bandshell as part of The Taste of Chicago on the 4th of July in 1994 at the peak of their popularity to a massive swell of people that filled the lawn section along Lake Shore Drive. Material Issue last played the Bandshell on the 4th of July in 1991, ironically as the opening act for The Replacements who finished that show by breaking up onstage and never playing again.
Tuesday’s show saw much smaller crowds. Nobody took in the show from the lawn section and the seated area was only one –third to half full.
How times have changed.
Material reIssue was playing their second of four shows (not including special surprise shows at Fitzgerald’s and Double Door) designed to pay tribute to the twentieth anniversary of their seminal debut album International Pop Overthrow (and to promote the recently released 20th Anniversary edition of the album) and opened the show Tuesday night .
Comprised of surviving members Ted Ansani (bass) and Mike Zelenko (drums), Material reissue was augmented on guitar and vocals by Phil Angotti and by Jay O’Rourke of The Insiders. Angotti had huge shoes to fill (original Material Issue vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Jim Ellison committed suicide in 1996. Ansani and Zelenko have performed together only once since 2007 and never under the MI moniker… hence the Material reIssue title).
Following on the heels of their triumphant April 23rd reunion at the Abbey Pub, Material reIssue performed an even tighter and more diverse set Tuesday at The Taste.
In April, the band kicked off the show with a performance of the IPO album in its entirety (forcing them to open with arguably their biggest hit “Valerie Loves Me”). On Tuesday they opened with “Chance of a Lifetime” and built their set, gradually working in early hits like “Diane” and “Renee Remains the Same.” Not having to adhere to an album tracklist gave this show more freedom and spontaneity.
As good as the band was in April, surprisingly, they were even better on Tuesday night. They were tighter this time around and more importantly, Angotti played with a confidence that wasn’t always apparent in April. Previously, Angotti seemed to depend often on watching Jay O’Rourke but Tuesday he seemed more loose… bantering more, moving about the stage more and just generally appearing to have more fun.
Midway through the set, Lemonhead Evan Dando could be seen taking in the show from the side of the stage, visibly bobbing his head and tapping his foot along to “Very First Lie.”
The band took the opportunity during their hour long set to work in some more obscure tunes too (songs it’s probably safe to assume they had the chance to play rarely if ever) including “Carousel” from Material Issue’s posthumous 1997 release Telecommando Americano (an album released eleven months after Ellison’s death). The “Carousel” performance (and several others) saw the band joined by Jay O’Rourke on guitar. O’Rourke was likely quite familiar with the song as he produced the Telecommando album in 1997. Material reIssue were again joined by O’Rourke for “Valerie Loves Me” and on sitar for a set closing rendition of “Kim the Waitress” that saw Angotti and Ansani trade lead vocals
Ansani and Angotti share beautiful vocal harmonies. Ansani has shown glimpses of what he’s capable of as a songwriter on his 2000 solo debut Throttle & Pistons. And Mike Zelenko’s propulsive drumming made me think that this is a band with something to play for (if not only a sense of closure, then also their musical legacy). I can’t help but hope that the band at least entertains the notion of continuing to make music together regardless of what they decide to call the band. The growth the trio has shown as a live act in only the past two months is so impressive that it almost mandates such.
Following Material reIssue off of the stage was about a third of the already small crowd. The dwindling crowd combined with Dando’s history of past excess (not to mention his general live unpredictability) all made for a slightly uneasy feeling as The Lemonheads took the stage to start their seventy minute set.
But Dando immediately silenced any doubters as the band tore into a churning version of “Great Big No” from their 1993 album Come on Feel… The Lemonheads.
Dando’s between song banter was coherent (he called the opening set by Material reIssue “Fucking amazing!”) and his playing was sharp. I’ve seen him perform three times (once solo at the Metro following the release of his debut solo album Baby, I’m Bored and once with the band in 2007 at the Abbey Pub following a self-titled Lemonheads release). This was far and away the best I’ve seen him. The other performances were all over the place, skittish at best. This show, however, proved exactly what Dando is capable of when in control of his strong library of 90s hits (not to mention in control of himself and his vices) as it was very strong throughout.
Dando is well known online for his many diverse covers. On Tuesday he worked in partial versions of Danzig’s “Mother” and Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” (which may have been a nod to Material Issue who covered it in 1991 on the ”Diane” single).
The Lemonheads peppered their set with hits like “If I Could Talk, I’d Tell You,” and “It’s a Shame About Ray” as well as fan favorites like “Get So Down About It,” “Rudderless,” “Bein’ Around” and “Confetti.” “Allison’s Starting to Happen” was the set’s finest and fastest moment.
An unexpected solo acoustic set can be a major chance to take in an outdoor food festival setting… but Dando started it strong with one of his biggest hits “Into Your Arms” and turned set finisher “The Outdoor Type” and older rarity “Stove” (from 1990's Lovey) into campfire sing-a-longs.
Given his past, it’s easy to forget how talented Dando is. And following Material reIssue’s set, the bar was set pretty high for The Lemonheads. But Tuesday afternoon at the Taste of Chicago saw two bands who still clearly have a lot left to play for.