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Ivan Julian is doing well, played Union Pool with Tommy Keene (pics, review)

review by Peter Jurew

Last year, Ivan Julian of legendary punk band Richard Hell & the Voidoids (and other projects) was diagnosed with cancer, and he was honored with two benefit shows at City Winery NYC that had Richard Hell, Debbie Harry, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), The Dictators, Bush Tetras, Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Thurston Moore & Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Matthew Sweet, Arto Lindsay, Lydia Lunch and more.

Ivan began recovering a few months later, and he made his return to the stage at The Bell House in October. He performed once again at Union Pool last Thursday (4/19) with power pop vet Tommy Keene. The pictures and review in this post are from that show.

For rock stars—even more so than for regular human beings—timing is everything. Their relevance in the audience’s mind is fragile—sometimes akin to “here today, gone to Maui.” That may be why some of the great rock tunes cop an attitude that falls somewhere between the Stones’ observation, “What a drag it is getting old,” and the Who’s “Hope I die before I get old.”

This made Union Pool’s double bill of Ivan Julian and Tommy Keene, two more or less semi-prominent rock stars from an earlier era, so intriguing. What could these two rock lifers, once elite members of the downtown hiperati, do to make an impression in the Age of Trump? Would we be subjected to tired retreads or could there be some fine old wine yet to bring up from the cellar?

Ivan Julian was present at the creation. He rose to prominence in the mid-1970s playing guitar and singing backup vocals in Richard Hell and the Voidoids, whose 1977 album Blank Generation remains a signature musical statement of the era. Julian had already seen much of the world musically, playing professionally from an early age and touring with the one-hit wonders, The Foundations (“Build Me Up Buttercup”), before joining up with the Voidoids. Starting around 1975, he was part of the scene at CBGB as bands like Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones coalesced locally and then exploded globally. Connecting with Hell (nee Meyers), the poet-novelist-songwriter-singer-bass player who had co-founded Television with Tom Verlaine, put Julian in the exact right place at the right time.

His set at Union Pool represented his continued return to the stage after battling health issues for much of the past two years. His cancer in remission, the guitarist and vocalist is taking his first steps back, and he and his old comrade Tommy Keene have set out on a modified national tour of small clubs that launched in March at McCabe’s in LA. The fact that Julian is performing at all was heartwarming to see as he joked from the stage, “It’s good to see you. In fact, it’s good to be seen … better to be seen than to be viewed.” Friends in the rock community—many of whom rallied around him last year at City Winery to raise funds to defray hefty medical costs—have supported him throughout his recovery, and many turned out at Union Pool.

Tommy Keene is another veteran of the rock wars, having been a “next big thing” several times in his 30-plus years of writing and recording superb power pop tunes. The Maryland native opened the mostly acoustic evening with a rousing solo set performed on 12-string and Telecaster guitars. He and Julian have been friends since 1980 when Keene, a rising songwriter and guitarist on the Washington, D.C. scene, visited New York and the two made music together. As Keene reminisced about that seminal visit, “I got to CBGB and the guy at the door, who wasn’t letting anybody in, said, ‘Oh, you know Ivan? You can go in.’”

In the course of his long, war-torn music career, Keene has collected what one music magazine called “a small but slavishly devoted cult of power-pop enthusiasts.” At Union Pool, it was easy to see and hear why. Upbeat, tuneful songs pour forth from him; his energy is high, his voice strong, and he comes across as a genuinely nice guy. His musical influences include the Beatles and the Stones, but elements of Elvis Costello can be heard in his vocals and lyrics. Contemporaries like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. hold nothing on him and one wonders who influenced whom.

Finally, at the end of two individual sets, Julian and Keene joined forces for one encore­—fittingly, the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” The poignancy of the line that starts off the song, “What a drag it is getting old,” was lost on no one.

In related news, some punk/CBGB veterans are teaming up for ‘May Day 2: Punk Rock All Stars’ at Le Poisson Rouge on May 2. The lineup includes Phil Marcade (of The Senders) with The Rouses & Friends + Lenny Kaye, The Waldows feat. Walter Lure, Daddy Long Legs, Legs McNeil, and “very special guests” (tickets).

photos by Lou Montesano

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