The dream of the ’90s is alive in Evan Dando. While seemingly all of his Boston alt-rock peers have either adapted to the modern music landscape’s hectic pace or gotten day jobs, the Lemonheads leader still lives like he’s competing for, as he recently put it, “some kind of Ultimate Slacker award.” Who else would release a cover album, put out nothing for 10 years, then return with . . . another cover album? Just this January, Dando was scheduled to play a benefit concert for local hardcore veteran Chris Doherty . . . then inexplicably bailed at the last minute.
Still, there’s a reason the Lemonheads sold out Saturday’s Paradise gig, their first hometown show in six years (five if you count Thompson’s Island) — and it’s not just Gen-X nostalgia or hometown-hero boosterism. The best Lemonheads songs, with their bubblegum melodies and wearily melancholic cores, make pop-rock gold of low-stakes emotions rarely memorialized so tenderly in song. Dando might act the slacker, but it’s hard work making such effortless-sounding music.
On this night, the band played with electrifying urgency, cramming almost 30 songs into about 90 minutes and often careening straight from one song into the next. Though the Lemonheads’ lineup is notoriously revolving-door in nature, the current crew (including guitarist Chris Brokaw of Dando’s ’90s-Boston peers Come) sounded perfectly in synch, whether speeding through punky power-pop, jangling sweetly at midtempo, or cutting loose for some thrilling but concise guitar-hero codas. Rarely have songs as shot through with anhedonia as “The Turnpike Down” and “Rudderless” sounded so fun.
It wouldn’t be a Lemonheads show without a whole slew of covers, though in true ’90s fashion they neglected to play their two most popular ones, “Mrs. Robinson” and “Into Your Arms.” Dando’s drawl makes him a natural for country, and he tackled John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Gram Parsons, and even Florida Georgia Line with ease. Dando flexed his record-collector bona fides with the garage-psych obscurity “Old Man Blank,” while Ramones and Elvis Costello covers were hat-tips to formative influences. It was a solo rendition of the sweetly twee “Frank Mills,” however, that got a huge, mostly female sing-along, evidence that Dando still has a little of that pin-up luster.
The encore peaked with two songs that confronted Dando’s well-documented struggles with drug addiction head-on. The sickly lurch of “Rick James Style” plumbed harrowing depths, while the wistful “My Drug Buddy” was almost unbearably heartbreaking. To follow that pair with “Big Gay Heart,” a song whose lyrical conceit has aged like milk, is the sort of baffling decision you get the feeling Dando makes every so often just to remind you that, no matter how efficiently the Lemonheads deliver the goods live, he’ll always be a wild card at heart.
With the Restless Age and Tommy Stinson. At the Paradise, Boston, Saturday night