Criminally Underrated Power-Pop Songwriter Tommy Keene Perseveres

Tommy Keene performing in Tokyo, 2015
Tommy Keene performing in Tokyo, 2015

Tommy Keene is one of the finest power-pop songwriters alive. Yet with 12 studio albums to his name, he continues to be an obscure act to non-aficionados. He’s played with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices and Paul Westerberg, and is currently the opening act on Matthew Sweet’s tour, which stops by the Heights Theater on July 23. He’s not bitter. He simply does what he does: write and play heart-tugging songs about love and loss with an immediacy you don’t often find in rock music.

After growing up in Maryland and being a part of the Washington, D.C. scene in the late 1970s, Keene put out his debut solo album, Strange Alliance, in 1982. He cut his second and third albums for Geffen. He didn’t reach a commercial breakthrough with the money a major label put behind him, so he’s taken the indie route ever since, steadily touring and putting new records out every few years.

He’s been to Texas quite a few times, yet the only time he’s played Houston was at Numbers as a member of Paul Westerberg’s backing band in the mid-’90s. So his opening set for Sweet next Sunday will be his first-ever solo performance here.

He’ll swap between songs on an acoustic guitar and an electric. He won’t have a backing band with him, but toward the end of Sweet’s set, Keene joins in on the fun. “It’s sort of an all-in-one, revolving troop,” Keene says while on tour in Nebraska.

Playing acoustic suits him, even though he’s known more for his electric performances. “It’s easier in a way because there are so many less variables that could go wrong,” he says. “But it’s a little bit nerve-wracking to be up there by yourself.” He says the solo route hasn’t altered his choice of songs. Expect what he usually plays with a band.

His last record, Laugh in the Dark, came out in 2015, so it’s reasonable to wonder if a new album is in the works. After a live album, a tour of Japan and a spring tour in the U.S., he was focused and ready last year.

“I was going to start writing pretty intensely,” he says. “But Matthew asked me if I wanted to do a whole tour and I couldn’t turn it down, so when the tour ends at the end of September, I’ll get to a writing mode. I hope to have another record next year, probably August or September, if I can come up with ten really good songs. We’ll see.”

In the meantime, he’s trying to get the albums he cut in the 1990s and early 2000s onto digital platforms. Driving Into the Sun, Ten Years After, Isolation Party and The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down are all on his list of albums he hopes will be heard. Now the owner of the master tapes, he plans to have them online in the near future.

Plus, he has plans for a live retrospective DVD of his career so far. That could arrive as early as January or February 2018. Some of the footage is from the 9:30 Club, the legendary D.C. club where many iconic acts played between the early ’80s and the mid-’90s, and which had a closed-circuit TV crew that filmed many of their shows. Coupled with shows and mini-documentary about life on the road, there’s no shortage of stuff.

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“I have stuff from everywhere,” Keene says. “I just need someone to help me put it together in terms of assembling it.”

Tommy Keene opens for Matthew Sweet at the Heights Theater on Sunday, July 23. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

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