The Lemonheads at The Mystic Theater, by Patric Carver
The Lemonheads (photo: Patric Carver)

Courthouse Square is a backlot at Universal Studios. It's most famous for being the town center of Hill Valley, the fictional setting of Back to the Future. It's a remarkable backlot because it is so all-encompassing that it feels like a real town with just a little dusting of artificiality sprinkled upon everything.

Driving into downtown Petaluma, I got a Courthouse Square vibe. Where were the tire-popping potholes of the East Bay? Where were the flea-infested debris piles reminiscent of every post-apocalyptic film since Mad Max? How come there were no stores that sold Chinese food, donuts, wigs, and lottery tickets? Why was everything so damn clean?

I felt a little ill at ease. Even in my sheltered punk-rock teenage years, the clubs where my mom would drop me off were always kind of...gross. Not dangerous gross, but gross enough. Gross enough to welcome the likes of the Pink Lincolns, Propaghandi, and Dinosaur, Jr. Would the Mystic Theatre be gross enough to welcome Tommy Stinson? The Lemonheads? Or, worse, had they become so clean and manufactured that they'd fit right into a place that stocks its toilet paper and sweeps its floors?

I entered the theater and headed to the bathroom to find there wasn't a stitch of graffiti. Not even a bumper sticker hastily placed. The place was charming as hell.


Well, all of my years of being in the scene should have taught me not to judge a book by its freaking cover.

The openers, the Restless Age, were so good. They had the feel of Jukebox the Ghost. However, whereas Jukebox tends to cloak their tunes in pretty exercises of keyboard acrobatics, Restless is a trio in which all three members are on much more even footing. Aptly named, there's nothing about their music that inspires the pulse to lessen — even their more romantic, swaying songs have an exciting engagement to them that doesn't allow the listener to sit still. Oh, and I get in trouble with my friends for how I tend to describe good harmonies with food, but how can I help it when kids like these keep producing a sound that is so delicious? Honey. Absolute honey. Buttery, rich, falling-over-the-edge-of-a-teacake honey. Highlights of their set included "Brightman" and "Good Way Out."

But what about the old men I was here to see? Would they be good still? I went back to the bathroom between sets. I took a look in the mirror. What was I playing at? My hair was no longer dyed every color of the rainbow, my arms free of wristbands, and my jacket did not have a single patch. I was cleaned up. I'd driven to the show straight from work, and I didn't look like the type of person Frank Portman would fictionalize and stick in a punkish novel. I looked soft and approachable — comfortable — just like the Mystic.

When Tommy Stinson took the stage, he looked like the same Tommy. To me, the Replacements always looked like they were young kids trying to dress like disheveled old men. That became fashionable for kids to do, and now Tommy, still wearing the same raggedy clothes he always had, looked like an old man trying to dress like the kids. Don't worry, though, he did not sound like an imposter. I know in the core of my being that Tommy Stinson's least-held worry is what some Internet blogger thinks of his music, and it shows in his performance. There's nothing — nothing — contrived about him on stage. As a rule, I don't like one-man acts. It sounds too much like a jam session — like I'm watching someone's practice. I didn't get that feeling from Stinson's performance. It didn't feel unfinished or like there was something more to come. Just a man and his guitar making music. I enjoyed it, even though I can't point to any one part that was more uplifting than others. Maybe I was just grateful that it wasn't a sad, watered-down acoustic session of Stinson's work with the Replacements.

It feels strange to apply a plural name to the headliners, the Lemonheads, because there's only one permanent Lemon standing. Evan Dando is that Lemon, but he was joined on stage by other great musicians. Notably among them was Chris Brokaw (formerly of ComeCodeine).

It reminded me of this one time when my sister and I were eating lunch together, we ordered the same salad. I chose to substitute the mushrooms for extra tomatoes. She paid an upcharge and got falafel added. Guess which salad won the battle for Best Salad of 2003? It wasn't my overly moist, tomato-laden mess, I'll tell you that. My sister still talks about how good her salad was. I only remember mine for how it paled in comparison.

My point is: If you want greatness you have to be willing to pair yourself with other great elements — even ones you hadn't really considered before. The Lemonheads with Brokaw didn't taste the same, but, man, was it satisfying. A highlight was, of course, their version of "It's a Shame About Ray," with that snare-like hook grabbing you and whipping you around still amongst the wispy nature of Dando's vocals. But, wait! There's the crunchy nugget of Brokaw's bottom-dragging bass vocals trailing alongside, creating a sound that is purposefully pitiful in a beautiful way.

The real show-stopper of the evening, though, was "Stove." How are you going to write a song about an appliance that in no way has any romantic qualities and make it so darn lovely? Brokaw's guitar was a perfect compliment.

I don't know when I'm going to stop being so apprehensive about my older rock heroes losing their edge. I've rarely been disappointed. People usually rise to my expectations. However, when I see a show this good, I'm reminded of why I get those worries and doubts in the first place. It's got nothing to do with the lack of gum under the theater seats, or the gray hairs on my head, or any of that. Those are things I notice because they're easy. It's because there are some people out there who have produced some phenomenal art, and I don't want to see it snuffed out — not by a bad show that masquerades as part of the magic from the past.

Thanks for not letting me down, guys. I'm sorry I'm such a judgmental jerk.