Tommy Keene at T.T. the Bear's
In 1984, Tommy Keene became an indie-pop icon with the release of the sterling six-song EP Places That Are Gone EP – a recording that’s stood the test of time remarkably well – on the now-long-defunct Dolphin Records. He was part of a school of rockin’ singer-songwriters from the South that included the Shoes, the db’s, Let’s Active, and Game Theory — all outfits dedicated to the classic pop values of melody, hooks, middle-eights, and harmonies. Keene also had a trump card in two of PlacesThat Are Gone’s songs: "Back to Zero Now" and the title track. Or so it seemed. Those soaring, graceful numbers and a string of fine recordings for major labels and the big indie Matador still didn’t put Keene over the top.
But as last night's show at T.T. the Bear’s Place proved, Keene – who fronted a granite hard quartet – is still a masterful songwriter, singer, and guitarist in love with his craft after 22 years in the trenches. Even a small turnout, roughly 40 people, didn’t trim his energy. He seemed fully charged playing the tunes from his new Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), which finds him still tilling the classic pop fields but with a tougher guitar sound and harder rhythmic attack that he also carried to the stage. His new entries like "Warren in the ’60s" and "Eyes of Youth" were spiky little essays in love and disillusionment, with occasional touches of dissonance adding a splash of darkness to his previously sunnier colors.
Recently Keene’s been playing guitar and collaborating with ex-Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard, and the two will put out an album later this year. Maybe inspired by Pollard’s DIY aesthetic, Keene cut Crashing the Ether in his home studio and played many of the tracks himself. He described that as a liberating experience, and that may account for the disc’s high energy level – really the first time one of his recordings seems as raw and free-ranging as the guitar acrobatics he’s always practiced live. And his playing at times surpassed the drama of his lyrics at T.T.’s, employing a tough sound that befitted his gnarled, snarling improvisations.
Before Keene, Corin Ashley, the former leader of Boston popmeisters the Pills, played a set that also hewed to the bones of great ’60s rock-songwriter bands like the Beatles and the Hollies. Ashley is a good bassist and guitarist, but he’s an exceptional student. His songs like "File Me Under Regret" and "The Royal Standard" are perfect reflections of classic pop. And his band nailed every harmony, dramatic break, modulation, and twist with similar devotion, effectively turning the club’s clock back more than 35 years. Ashley’s also a terrific singer, with the range, depth and intonation necessary to nail his ambitious tunes. His one misstep was a show-stopping – literally – solo rendition of Burt Bacharach’s "Close to You" for which Ashley capably accompanied himself on ukulele. It was cloying and dull compared to what he does best.
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