Tommy Keene in the Late Bright
"Hey, when you're on, there's a light in the nighttime"
Talking Head Club, Baltimore
May 2, 2009
The Tom-Tom Club: Keene and Warner's paths finally cross
Tommy Keene is my hero. I've been following his career ever since the late '70s thanks to my DC pal and musical mentor Tom Lehr and his sexy friend Sharon; I had a crush on Sharon and, since she had a crush on Tommy Keene, we ended up going to a lot of his shows when he was playing guitar with a DC band called The Razz. I remember thinking he had style, from his melodic strumming to the way he wore sports jackets with tab-collar shirts like Dylan circa '66. My Sharon crush eventually expired, but my interest in Keene continued when another college friend, Bernie Ozol, turned me onto his first solo album, 1981's still out-of-print masterpiece Strange Alliance. But I hadn't seen him play live since a 1996 show at Loyola College supporting the Gin Blossoms.
So I naturally jumped at the chance to see Tommy play a rare Baltimore gig last night in the intimate confines of the Talking Head Club @ Sonar in support of his latest (and eighth overall) album In the Late Bright - his best album since 1998's Isolation Party in my not-so-humble-opinion (see other reviews here). Apparently, the Talking Head Club show was the last stop on his 10-city US tour. I don't care that he's not a household name like the vapid acts that headline next door at Sonar. He may be American Pop's Best Kept Secret (small wonder then that seeing him last night would entail traipsing through a dark, hidden alleyway like Prohibition era thrill-seekers looking for a speakeasy), but to those in the know (like last night's local Keene boosters Skizz Cyzyk, Jen Talbot, Ed Neenan, Greg Dohler, Cindy France and Eleanor Lewis), he's an inspiration. He's exactly 6 months younger than me, which means he qualifies for AARP benefits and yet is still slogging it out in little clubs across America in the late bright of his career for...the love of rock and roll. Pure and simple. As he said in his recent NPR "World Cafe" interview with David Dye (a 3-song acoustic set highlighted by a cover of Alex Chilton's chilly ode to going out, "Nighttime" from Big Star's Third: Sister Lovers), seeing the Beatles in Washington, D.C. when he was 5 1/2 and then later watching the Who on the Smothers Brothers TV show changed his life. And our ears are the better for it.
The Village Voice perfectly capsulized Keene's career and current tour when Jason Gross wrote, "Even with boosters such as Paul Westerberg, Guided By Voices, and T-Bone Burnett, this DC native remains very much a cult figure after three decades in the business. Power pop's gone and in out of style enough times since then to warrant a re-examination of his catalog, but not to the extent that it's lifted him up to the level of his most famous fans. Just be thankful that he still hasn't thrown in the towel and that you have another chance to become a booster yourself" [my emphasis on that last line].
I've blogged a lot about Keene extensively in the past (viz "Keen on Keene", "The Tommy Keene Handbook") so I won't gild the lily with more verbiage about how great the show was. I'll leave that to the fresh perspective of a recent Keene convert, "introverted excavator" blogger Bridget Gibbons in her excellent review "Stop Falling In Love With Everything That Lets You Down" (yes, the title's a reference to Tommy's song "Nothing Can Change You" from 1989's Based On Happy Times LP). I'll only mention briefly that...
- Tommy's "Haven't Thrown In the Towel Yet" Touring Band includes his longtime bassist Brad Quinn and guitar whiz Steve Gelbach, who has a kinda James Dean thing going on with his hair. (Gelbach previously played on Tommy's 2002 album Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.) Dunno the drummer.
- People think the title In the Late Bright refers to Keene's career, but it's actually the latest example of Tommy's fascination with old school hipster slang, refering to that time when, after you've stayed up all night, it starts getting light again. 2006's Crashing the Ether similarly took its title from '40s hipster slang for making a radio broadcast. (Of course, I prefer almost hip slang.)
- Tommy's closing encore cover of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons" (from Lou's 1974 LP Sally Can't Dance) featured a pleasant surprise for fans wondering how the Keene legacy will carry on - his 14-year-old nephew Hunter Keene sat in on drums and stole the show! The Keene Gene talent pool guarantees the Nex Gen of Keene musicianship is in good hands. This kid's 1/3 my age, yet plays 10 times better (okay 100 times better) than I ever did on my best day ever. Kick ass!
Hunter Keene steals the scene
- By the way, "Kill Your Sons" has long been a staple of Keene's live shows, providing a showcase for his guitar playing prowess. While a studio version appears on Tommy's major label debut album Songs From the Film (Geffin, 1986), he pulled out all the stops on the searing live version he recorded in New York back in the mid-'80s It's a shame fans can only hear it on the out-of-print vinyl and cassette versions of 1986's Run Now EP. Five of the EP's six songs were included on the 1998 CD reissue of Songs From the Film; alas, the live "Kill Your Sons" track was left off.
- Prior to Hunter's cameo, the drums were played by another local musician, at least according to Skizz Cyzyk, who informed me that the bald guy in the cool Pabst t-shirt was none other than the former drummer of '80s Baltimore indie band Red Dye #9 - and a fellow TSU grad (Class of '90) to boot! All I know is that blue Pabst shirt turned me green with envy.
- When I was genuflecting before Tommy after the show, I asked him if he remembered my old college chum Bernie Ozol who, before he transferred to Towson State University, was Tommy Keene's roommate for one semester at University of Maryland College Park. "Yeah, I remember Bernie," Tommy laughed, "Where the hell is he? Why isn't he here tonight?"
OK, that said, here are some pictures, video and the set list from Tommy's Talking Head show.
Gig Set List:
As expected, the set was dominated by songs from the new album (5 in all), followed by three songs each from Songs From the Film (1986) and Based On Happy Times (1989), two songs apiece from Places That Are Gone (1984) and Ten Years After (1996), and one each from Crashing the Ether (2006), Isolation Party (1998), and the Sleeping On a Rollercoaster EP (1992).
1. Late Bright (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
2. Secret Life of Stories (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT)
3. Highwire Days (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
4. Down, Down, Down (from SLEEPING ON A ROLLERCOASTER EP, 1992)
5. Nothing Can Change You (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
6. Paper Words and Lies (from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986)
7. Save This Harmony (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT)
8. Goodbye Jane (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT)
9. Black & White New York (from CRASHING THE ETHER, 2006)
10. Turning On Blue (from TEN YEARS AFTER, 1996)
11. Underworld (from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986)
12. Realize You're Mine (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT)
13. When Our Vows Break (T. Keene-J. Shears) (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES)
14. Back To Zero (from PLACES THAT ARE GONE, 1984)
15. Compromise (from TEN YEARS AFTER)
16. Long Time Missing (from ISOLATION PARTY, 1998)
17. Places That Are Gone (from PLACES THAT ARE GONE, 1984)
18. Kill Your Sons (Lou Reed) - featuring his nephew Hunter Keene on drums!
(from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986; live version on RUN NOW EP, 1986)
"Underworld" live at The Talking Head
"Places That Are Gone" encore live at The Talking Head
Hunter Keene: In the zone
Tommy and his Telecaster
Boys II Men: Hunter Keene sits in
Steve Gelbach and Hunter Keene
Hunter Keene channels the spirit of Keith Moon and John Bonham
Hunter Keene keeps the big beat
Hunter Keene obscured by hairpiece
Hunter Keene partially obscured by his mom's digital camera
Hunter Keene agreed to take me on as a drum student
"Face it Tommy, my shirt's way cooler than yours!"
Tommy preaches to recent convert, Bridget Gibbons
Bridget and fanboy E. Joseph "Ed" Neenan
Ed begs Tommy to join his band E. Joseph & The Phantom Heart
"I'm tellin' ya, we could be big," Ed says, but Tommy
resists Ed's pitch to join proposed new supergroup
"E. Joseph and Tommy Keene's Phantom Heart."
Artsy pic #1
Artsy pic #2
Tommy Keene Links:
www.tommykeene.com (Official website)
Tommy Keene on MySpace
In the Late Bright reviews
"Please Don't Come Around" is NPR's "Song of the Day"
Tommy Keene on NPR's "World Cafe" (4-30-09)
The Tommy Keene Handbook by Geoff Cabin (an essential purchase!)
A 'Bright' Spot in a Long Career (great Geoffrey Himes review)
introverted excavator review