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INSPIRED AND REWARDING

Tommy Keene, The Figgs and Seth Tiven/Maxwell's, Hoboken, N.J./June 16, 2006

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An unofficial Tommy Keene (above) itinerary for the past decade would read like this:

Release critically praised but modestly selling indie album every three or four years. Follow it up by hitting the road with backing band to support the disc on a short tour of small clubs.

Perform tight and often smoldering shows, even if the club is half full on many nights.

If it sounds like a career rut, consider the rewarding manner in which this cycle inevitably ends: with old fans and new converts alike wondering how such a unique singer/songwriter/guitarist has not found more mainstream recognition since an ill-fated major label stint in the late ’80s.

It was a question worth pondering again as Keene and his band ripped through a taut hour-long performance, fresh off the spring release of his sixth studio album, Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty Records). The disc is one of his strongest and perhaps his darkest collection of songs, and the new offerings fit comfortably alongside nuggets from various points of his career as sweet, silvery slices of earnest, driving but never dissonant power pop.

Disc opener “Black and White New York” kick-started the Maxwell’s show with a common Keene blueprint: contemplative verses set to thunderous drums and an alluring dual guitar attack. Yet even the more personal, understated new tracks took on a bar-band buoyancy, thanks to the inspired playing and performing put forth by Keene — who enjoys emphatic head bobbing between verses almost as much as he does tuneful, minor-chord noodling at a song’s coda — and his musicians (guitarist Dave Phillips; bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain, better known from the band Velvet Crush; and longtime drummer John Richardson).

The jangly “Quit That Scene” was much more muscular than on record, yet retained a tinge of tenderness in Chastain’s harmony vocals on the choruses; “Driving Down the Road in My Mind” was a flawless, fiery ballad that earned the players some of the loudest applause of the night — and not just because the tune was capped with Keene’s solo from the front of the crowd.

The night served as much as a showcase for Keene’s new material as a reminder why he remains a cult hero to the most ardent melodic rock disciples: his body of ultra-catchy, should-be hits. The gorgeous melancholy of “Silent Town” was an early-set highlight, drawing to a close with Keene’s flurry of echoing mini-solos. Later, he elicited hoots of approval from the die-hards in the crowd when he unearthed “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe” — a gem from his 1986 debut album, Songs From the Film — and amped things up further with the anthemic “Long Time Missing” and “Places That Are Gone,” his signature closer.

Keene and his band utilized their encore to unleash an uproarious cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” which he has been performing for more than two decades. He attacked it with such joy, it sounded like the kind of song Keene would be belting out anyplace for the sheer fun of it, even if he were not still navigating the unforgiving fringe of the music biz.

Guitar pop trio The Figgs — under-the-radar indie-rock warhorses in their own right — had the unenviable task of following such a crowd-pleasing set, and they were more than up to the task. Cramming 22 foot-stomping songs into 65 minutes, the band rewarded the few dozen fans who stayed late (the set began at 12:30 a.m.) with a full-tilt show that took on the feel of a pep rally at times.

It included a sizeable and promising sampling of their forthcoming album, while vocalists Mike Gent (guitar) and Pete Donnelly (bass) also honored fans’ call-outs for older tracks, such as “The Daylight Strong,” from the band’s deep catalog. The threesome even headed into the crowd for two songs, the highlight of which saw drummer Pete Hayes keeping the beat with a drumstick on his beer bottle as he sauntered around the club, leading the sing-along on “Bad Luck Sammie.”

Opening act Seth Tiven, the leader (read: sole mainstay) of ’80s college-radio darlings Dumptruck, seemed an appropriate inclusion on this bill — at least on paper. Armed with his acoustic guitar and warbling vocals (think Neil Young, only without hitting the high notes), Tiven turned in a colorless 50 minutes of hackneyed introspection that got the evening off to a dreary start.

— By George Henn