Bethesda-bred singer-guitarist Tommy Keene is one of those guys for whom artistic and commercial success always seem to be out of whack. And so they were Friday evening at the 9:30 Club, when Keene and his trio played a big show for a small audience. The turnout was probably lessened by the Black Cat’s competing 20th-anniversary celebration, which featured several D.C.-rooted bands that started playing local clubs not long after Keene did. But even under the most favorable circumstances, the pop-rock performer hasn’t attracted the crowds his deftly crafted music deserves.
Outside of Washington, Keene is probably best known as a cautionary example of the dangers of major labels. He made two albums for Geffen in the 1980s, and that company’s second-guessing nearly derailed his career. But Keene regained his equilibrium, returning with a string of solid, if little-heard, records for small labels. He’s never updated his style, which melds wistful melodies, rueful lyrics and exuberant arrangements. But neither has he exhausted it.
Keene is touring on the strength of two recordings, both of them new yet old. One is a reissue of his long-unavailable debut, 1982’s “Strange Alliance.” The other is “Excitement at Your Feet,” a collection of recently recorded versions of songs by such Keene favorites as the Who, Big Star and the Flamin’ Groovies. (His choice from that last band is “Have You Seen My Baby?,” which was often performed by Razz, the D.C. quintet that included a pre-solo Keene.) It’s no surprise that all but one of the cover tunes was originally released more than 30 years ago.
The musician played a handful of songs from “Excitement at Your Feet,” including Television’s “Guiding Light,” Roxy Music’s “Out of the Blue” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Puppet.” He also did “All the Way Around,” a pensive “Strange Alliance” track Keene said he hadn’t performed since the days of the old 9:30 Club, which closed in 1995. But the 85-minute set drew mostly from a more familiar repertoire, stretching from “Places That Are Gone,” probably Keene’s best-known composition, to such rollicking yet melodious post-Geffen numbers as “Compromise” and “High Wire Days.”
Keene was backed by some longtime collaborators, including Steve Gerlach, who traded lead-guitar duties. He added rippling counterpoint when Keene was singing but stepped back for the other guitarist’s showcases, including a rampaging rendition of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons” — Keene’s customary set-closer since long before he recorded an album of covers. He’s made Reed’s autobiographical adolescent plaint his own, and plays it with the vigor of the teenager he hasn’t been for a few decades.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.