Unless there's no way to avoid it, the one night of the week Rocks Off does not like to review shows is Friday. After five straight 10- to 12-hour days (at least), our brain is usually in tatters and all we want to do is limp home or to a preferred watering hole and shut it off for a few hours. This goes double for anything related to music, at least any kind of critical thinking beyond that required to punch a few buttons on a jukebox.
But besides our day job, music - especially live music - is still our main hobby after all these years. It's like a cockroach that way, or a virus, or pure instinct; there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it. And to be perfectly honest, there isn't much else we really like to do anyway. So every once in a while, against our better judgment, Friday evening rolls around and there we are, in front of one more stage. An hour or two later, we often wish we weren't.
That wasn't the case Friday, although it easily could have been. Centro-matic is not a band that lends itself to casual fandom or easy analysis, where you can hear a couple of songs and think, "Oh, I get it." Or so we thought.
Since forming in 1995, the Denton four-piece has released several albums under its own name as well as solo work and satellite projects like South San Gabriel. It's a lot of material. They fit in well in Austin (surprise), so Rocks Off has caught the band a few times over the years, although not any more recently than around 2005 or so. We've liked a couple of their records enough to put them on our year-end Top 10 list - 2003's Love You Just the Same and probably this year's Candidate Waltz - but by no means are we an expert.
To say front man and principal songwriter Will Johnson is "cryptic" would be like calling those "Diagramless" crossword puzzles that show up every once in a while in The New York Times Magazine - the ones without any black squares - "challenging." A random sampling of Johnson/Centro-matic's catalog will give you song titles that are evocative ("Guillotines Hung Together"), punny ("Glacial Slurs") or just plain WTF ("Post-It Notes from the State Hospital").
Musically, Centro-matic makes a bit more sense. Picture a folk singer run amuck with three brothers in arms who have been playing together for so long every move they make is completely intuitive and organic, and you're most of the way towards imagining what the modest but enthusiastic crowd at Fitz downstairs got Friday night. Johnson and the three other Centros gave it right back - he said the band was stoked to be playing Houston for the first time in four years; much more importantly, they played like it.
Opener "Love You Just the Same" set the tone for the evening: Dense thickets of electric guitar, oaken drumming from Matt Pence, and pockets of melody that poked out like gophers, usually from bassist Mark Headman and Scott Danbom on keyboards and guitar. That seemed to happen most often on the songs from Waltz that came early in the set - "Iso-Residue," "Against the Line," "All the Talkers" - but then again, it's the Centro album we're most familiar with, and had been listening to most recently, so it could have just set off some unconscious memory triggers.
Either way, the entire 90 minutes or so Centro-matic was onstage was definitely of a piece; you could even call it monochromatic, bearing in mind that the band was painting with one of our favorite musical colors. (Most of the band also played with their Denton compadre and opener Sarah Jaffe; overall we thought she could have used a little bit more of their grit, but could certainly see the same potential and charm our reviewer saw at House of Blues in April.)
Whether or not we recognized the specific song or could make out the lyrics - and the squalling guitars and Pence's drums usually meant we couldn't - each song loosened the mental gasket that had tightened in Rocks Off's throughout the week another turn or two, and by the end we were feeling just fine.
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About halfway through the set, it dawned on us how much they reminded us of Son Volt: Roots-rock that is stormy and poignant, sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once. Fast-forward about 24 hours, and Rocks Off's current mad prophet of the airwaves, Steve Earle, had this to say about Son Volt's "Medicine Hat" on his Sirius/XM show: "It's a great song, but I have no idea what it's about."
Hear hear. Really, the only thing we know about what we heard Friday is that each song was "about" four or five minutes long, and that transcendent closer "Only In My Double Mind" (from Waltz) has been whanging around our head ever since. If more Friday-night shows turned out this well, we'd be limping to the front of the stage every time.