What happens when you are the best at what you do and what you do falls out of fashion, so you spend your life waiting for a future that never arrives? What happens when you are so good, you work on a level well beyond your contemporaries, a level that is cult in name only, but rather is insistently, brilliantly and always perfect populism? If the future refuses to arrive and you find yourself at small if packed out clubs, does it make you angry? Or careless? Why write circles around the pop music communities if no one has the ears to hear it?
Or to contract all those questions into one: What happens if you’re Tommy Keene? A singer songwriter who towers over power pop with timeless melodies and songs (“I think my songs have been incredibly underutilized. It’s incredibly frustrating. I have to admit I would sell out in a second”), a forceful charismatic live performer, whose vocals go from a whisper to a scream and a guitarist who seems to flick out licks and finger picks em with dexterity, and whose energy and sound is more like classic rock than anything else. What happens is, you run out of time. Tommy is like Charles Bronson at the end of “Once Upon A Time In The West” -a great gunslinger in a wild west that has become civilized.
Keene’s gig at Bowery Electric Thursday, in promotion of his fine new album Laugh In The Dark, was something of a bad day at the office. The start was moved up an hour, Tommy started by dropping his mic, spilled water over his amp, fell flat right on the stage floor… he just seemed out of sync. And while the set had some sterling performances, particularly towards the end where a spectacular “Places That Are Gone” was followed by a psychedelic jam on newbie “All Gone Away” and finally his epic Lou Reed cover “Kill Your Sons” which segued into the lost rock stars epitaph “Street Fighting Man”, it still felt rotely intense.
The same can’t be said of Dot Dash, a DC power pop quartet, who morph into a very hard rhythm based rock band on stage. With the bass, rhythm guitar and drums right at the top of the mix taking no prisoners and transforming their Mitch Easter produced new album’s pop songs into hard rock a mutation away from metal, they were absolutely unique. If I had bothered taking a look at their resume, “Singer/guitarist Terry Banks was in St. Christopher and the Saturday People before teaming up with bassist Hunter Bennett in acclaimed indie-rock band Julie Ocean; guitarist Steve Hansgen played bass for hardcore legends Minor Threat and Government Issue, and then the mod group Modest Proposal; drummer Danny Ingram co-founded harDCore band Youth Brigade” rather than just listening to Earthquakes And Tidal Waves, I might have been less confounded though no more appreciative. A terrific set.
“Two guitarists walk into a bar…” an audience member shouted.
“What happens after that…?” Tommy asked before nailing down another lick…
Tommy is such a pro, he isn’t thrown by anything but he seems distracted, still working things out or maybe just not in the mood.. A slow start spins its wheels till he fails to make short work of the glamourous and existentially mind blowing lick on “Last Of The Twilight Girls”, I had been waiting for that one, expecting a coming to terms with one of his (many, true) great songs somewhat botched on record. It demands the fiery guitar solos Tommy can and does provide, but perhaps “Twilight Girls” hasn’t been in the repertoire long enough, and he adds nothing to the recorded version.Two songs later, Tommy gets into his groove, standing so close to the mic he hits it with his nose, that tender and tough voice which seems to be able to roar at full steam ahead without distorting or losing the melody (not the sound but the skill reminds me of Lennon) cutting through the early evening atmosphere, and then buckling at the legs for extra power and firing off one dextrous lick after another, first with his fingers and then changing to a riff and strumming very fast.
The 75 minute set is bloody mindedly engaging, a little uninspired though he isn’t calling it in. Tommy’s rapport with the audience, who adore him, feels one sided. For a man standing so close to the fans he seems distant. Though Bowery Electric is a small venue, it isn’t an empty venue. The faithful showed, and it wasn’t all gray hairs, there were some 20 somethings, wow even some of that opposite sex (what do you call ’em?) and yet Madonna was warmer to her audience at MSG the night before.
Even off hand Keene is better than most singer songwriters, at any given moment he can dazzle you with his tight and smart band on point as one, and his constant inventiveness on every level, whether it be guitar on “Nowhere Drag”, a beautiful refrain on “Places That Are Gone”, or even on his own inevitable epitaph, like Bronson at the train station, leaving Dodge, “but what can a poor boy do…?” breaks through the clutter in our brain and lifts us somewhere we weren’t.
A guitarist works into a bar and then what happens…
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