Report: Tommy Keene Live in San Fran

The veteran rocker who once decried the
power-pop label as “wearing a bull’s eye painted on your t-shirt”
dazzles S.F.’s Rickshaw Stop on January 25. (Go here to read the recent BLURT
interview
with Keene.)

 

By Jud Cost

 

Tommy Keene may
have been playing what some people call “power pop” for about 30
years now, but there is no sign whatsoever of coasting, of taking his foot off
the gas after all these years. On a Wednesday night, he’s drawn 85 people to
the Rickshaw Stop, a bottom-rung San
Francisco club hidden near the corner of Market and
Van Ness. Maybe to discourage an overflow of patrons, the joint has no visible
sign outside to identify itself. But Keene
couldn’t have put on a more energetic show if he’d been booked into Davies
Symphony Hall or Herbst Theatre, two blocks away.

 

Keene’s songs,
as the dreaded (by him, anyway) power pop label would suggest, have the kinetic
energy of a city bus without brakes, as well as ear-catching bits of melody
scattered in all the right places. The Washington
D.C. native takes great care with
a set list that makes each song sound new, fresh and different. It doesn’t take
long for Keene’s fine ear to evoke the prolific
muse of Robert Pollard (Keene
and Pollard have apparently recorded under the name the Keene Brothers).

 

Dressed in an old
blue shirt, a plain black T and black pants, Keene looks like he’s been sent by
central casting for a commercial shoot looking for “a workingman’s rock
‘n’ roller.” His guitar playing is energetic, a perfect foil to the man on
his left, an effective if less spectacular player. At one point during their
55-minute set, the two are trading riffs like the glory days of Tom Verlaine
and Richard Lloyd. The drummer is very busy, slamming away at powerful fills
like he’s playing Whack-a-Mole with his kit. He’s just what Keene’s vigorous songs demand.

 

By the end of
the night, the comparisons to great rock bands from the past are inescapable:
the Velvet Underground, Dream Syndicate, Television, the Mumps, True West,
Guided By Voices and the Raspberries.

 

When some small
detail goes awry, Keene
is quick to apologize, “Sorry, we just woke up.” The cry of an infant
at the back of the house startles the singer who chuckles, “Is that a
baby? I’m attracting younger fans all the time,” then launches into a song
that summons the ghosts of the Byrds covering Dylan’s “Chimes of
Freedom.” Best of all, Tommy Keene knows exactly when to get off stage,
playing a Lou Reed finale that could have been one of his own. Thou shalt leave
’em wanting more is a commandment all but forgotten in the day of instant,
nonstop digital gratification.

 

The Bye Bye
Blackbirds from Oakland, playing tonight as a
quartet, were just what Keene’s
doctor might have ordered to warm the slim house. Lead singer Bradley Skaught
apologizes for the band using an electric 12-string, “generally known as a
psychedelic instrument, except when
you’re on psychedelics and trying to tune it.” It brought a momentary
flashback to the endless between-song delays when S.F.’s Flamin’ Groovies used
no fewer than three of the infernal things onstage, back in the ’80s. All’s
forgiven, of course, when it coaxes goose bumps with its magic
jingle-jangle. 

 

The Blackbirds
(perhaps named after a favorite standard of Miles Davis’ early quintet with
John Coltrane), characterized themselves before their set as “power pop
with a little bit of country.” Tonight, the honky tonk was all but
invisible, unless a few fumes from the tour bus of Beachwood Sparks might have
invaded the premises. “This song is a mean one, meant to be enjoyed, but
it’s not about you,” warns Skaught. “Tommy Keene is one of very few
guys we’d open for, even at 3:00 am during a snowstorm,” he adds. An
intrepid lot, Keene’s
devotees, no doubt, feel exactly the same way.     

 

 

Photo Credit: Chris Rady

 

 

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