Sunday, May 3, 2009
Stop Falling In Love With Everything That Lets You Down
Tommy Keene - 5/2/2009
The Talking Head, Baltimore
Twenty-some years after hearing the Replacements 'Alex Chilton' for the first time on my sister's college radio show, and a good 10 years after hearing the man himself play with a reunited Box Tops on Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre, PA, I've finally gotten around to really discovering the music of Alex Chilton and Big Star. Aside from knowing that he influenced everyone from the Replacements to Counting Crows ("I wanna be Big Star") I never knew much about him, save that he was trapped during Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to my friend Tom, who knows more about music than anyone I know, I discovered the melodic melancholy of Mr. Chilton and company. Elliott Smith, who'd covered several Big Star songs (notably Thirteen and Nighttime), and certainly no stranger to beautiful pain himself, was in many ways a musical heir of Chilton and Big Star. Another musical heir, who I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing in Baltimore last night, is Tommy Keene.
Tommy Keene, a Maryland native who has been playing/recording since the early 80s, is someone I'd never even heard of until about a month ago. This is surprising, given his long career and musical collaborations (notably playing as the Keene Brothers with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fame, another band I discovered thanks to college radio--I put 'Surgical Focus' on many a mix tape for some undeserving boy). Perhaps it's incorrect to call Keene an heir to Chilton--at 51 he's not even a decade younger--because while the music has a similar sensibility, Keene is clearly his own musician. The word 'power pop' gets thrown around a lot, but I don't really know what that means. Defining a musical genre based on affection for the Beatles and intelligently written pop tunes is limiting, since, like any label, it doesn't really tell you anything meaningful. (Interestingly, wikipedia's definition of 'power pop' would also fit Kurt Cobain, who, despite appearances to the contrary, was totally a melody junkie.) Tom's disclaimer (knowing my musical taste) when giving me the first Keene mix was that Tommy Keene isn't Radiohead. Maybe not, but he's a stellar performer/lyricist/guitar player who writes thoughtful, well-crafted songs.
Keene played at the Talking Head, a venue more intimate than anywhere I've seen a show (it's probably the size of my apartment), and my new favorite place to hear a band. (According to Rolling Stone's 2008 "Best Of" issue which rated Baltimore as having "the best music scene," the Talking Head is named for native son David Byrne, but I haven't been able to corroborate that). The 2 dimwitted door attendants at Sonar had never even heard of the Talking Head, even though it's housed within Sonar's walls ("What?--the Talking Heads aren't playing tonight, it's Sum 41, you got the wrong night babe..") You can imagine how much I appreciated being patronized by some stoned chick in smeared eye makeup who was younger than me. But it was fortuitous timing. As we stopped to talk to a friend of Tom's in the small alley leading to the club, Tommy Keene, his band, and what looked like his family, came around the corner behind us, and graciously greeted their fans on their way inside.
Now, I have only recently discovered Tommy Keene's music. However, the small crowd gathered at Talking Head knew his catalogue inside and out. I kinda felt like I did when I saw the Watchmen on opening night at the Uptown in DC and the mostly male audience cheered for every special effect. It's always super interesting, and a privilege for sure, to intimately observe a subculture of devoted fans. And man, were they devoted. There was a burly guy in a Ravens jersey with both arms and fists in the air during most of the show. The guy in front of me did an exaggerated head-bang to seemingly every drum beat. Out of the corner of my eye I spied the guy next to me playing air guitar. Seriously.
But I have to say, Tommy rocked. He may have only been playing for 30 people, but he played like he was playing for 300. It was the last night on their tour, and he was clearly enjoying himself and the attention from his adoring and extremely well-informed fans who knew everything he played, from his 80s material to his latest, In the Late Bright. His voice is reminiscient of Chilton's, but deeper and rougher, the perfect marriage of Paul Westerberg and Elvis Costello. Physically, he looked to me like a cross between a young Jimmy Stewart and Mel Gibson (circa Lethal Weapon). He has this everyman countenance, with a touch of madness in those intense blue eyes. And his playing matches him--it's pleasing, but is not sugar coated pop--and he's such a skilled musician that it doesn't even occur to you to be wowed by it. He makes it all seem easy. Flawless.
Why, then, hasn't he been on my radar? It's a mystery to me that every true music fan I know knows Chilton, but doesn't know Keene. It must be frustrating for Mr. Keene to be playing this tiny club for less than 50 people, while Sum 41 played to a packed house next door. And it frustrates me as a music fan. After the show, Keene mingled with fans--signing CDs, posing for pictures-- and graciously answered a new fan's lyric question, saying "I'm not sure, email me" (and I totally will-- it's a shame he's gay!)
For the last encore, Keene announced a surprise guest on drums, his 14 year old nephew, Hunter Keene, for their amazing cover of Lou Reed's 'Kill Your Sons.' The doe-eyed Hunter, a dead ringer for Atreyu from the Neverending Story, didn't appear to have any difficulty keeping up. In fact, he totally upstaged the rest of the band with his fierce playing. In a few years he'll be in some huge rock band. Perhaps mainstream success won't elude him like it has his uncle.
For more info on Tommy Keene, check out Tom's blog posting and Keene's recent NPR interview.
1. Late Bright (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
2. Secret Life of Stories (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT 2009)
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; CD reissued with RUN NOW EP in 1998)
7. Save This Harmony (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
8. Goodbye Jane (from IN THE LATE BRIGHT, 2009)
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, 2009)
13. When Our Vows Break (T. Keene-J. Shears) (from BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, 1989)
14. Back To Zero (his "signature song," first real single, from PLACES THAT ARE GONE EP, Dolphin Records, 1984)
15. Compromise (from TEN YEARS AFTER, 1996)
16. Long Time Missing (from ISOLATION PARTY, 1998)
17. Places That Are Gone (from PLACES THAT ARE GONE EP, 1984 - original version on the CD compilation THE REAL UNDERGROUND; a later, rerecorded, version appears on SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986)
18. Kill Your Sons (Lou Reed)
(from SONGS FROM THE FILM, 1986, also appears as a live version on RUN NOW EP, 1986)