Centro-matic | Sarah Jaffe Off Broadway July 5, 2011
In a perfect world, the makers of Auto-Tune - the vocal pitch-correction software that makes starlets sing like robots - would come out with a Will Johnson Sound-Alike module. The singer and guitarist for Centro-matic has such an idiosyncratic way with a phrase that only a computer algorithm can crack it: his modulations and mutations are both instantly recognizable and unpredictable, and at last night's show at Off Broadway, Johnson's twangy, husky tenor was lifted by his band's big, joyous moments of guitar-rock goodness.
Centro-matic has long been a St. Louis favorite - in year's past it has not been uncommon for two or three concerts (or Johnson solo shows) per year. A decent-sized crowd of polite, respectful and mostly reserved fans greeted the band as they toured in support of the new Candidate Waltz, the band's most straightforward, melodic and enjoyable LP since 2003's high-water mark Love You Just the Same. The album condenses Johnson's songwriting strengths - sticky hooks, thick guitar bursts and wordless sing-along choruses - and all those traits got an ample airing at last night's show.
Taking the stage at 10:15 p.m., the band leaned heavily on the new material early in the set. The Waltz opener "Against the Lines" came second, its jarring chords and slight discord lending an ominous mood. That heaviness passed quickly as the bouncy "Iso-Residue" followed, injecting a little Cheap Trick boogie into the affair.
But after a few new ones, Centro-matic dug back into its vast catalogue for the bulk of the remaining songs. "Huge in Every City," a biting takedown of indie-rock egos, came early on, though the band would stick mostly to its last few discs for inspiration. "The Mighty Midshipman," with its thundering drums, was a welcome addition to the set. Drummers looking for a lesson in economy should look no further than Matt Pence; with a simple kit and zero flash, Pence pushed these songs to the brink with a solid right foot and perhaps the most nuanced hi-hat work since Steely Dan's "Peg." His perfect simplicity is easy to take for granted, but then so is Centro-matic. With a wealth of fine albums and a non-stop touring schedule, fans have never had a chance to miss the band.
So much of what makes Centro-matic work is found in Johnson's full-bore guitar work. It's never flashy or particularly intricate, but it provides a thick, resonant backdrop for his sideways, impossible-to-parse lyrics. He introduced "Calling Thermatico" as a song about baseball (his favorite pastime), but it's anyone's guess how the sport gets reflected in the lyrics. And yet Johnson's inscrutability is a charm, not an affectation or a stance. The power and emotion comes through, even if your brain can't quite make sense of the syntax. The sound is more important, anyway.
Fellow Denton, Texas resident Sarah Jaffe opened the show with a stunning eight-song set that pulled mostly from her last LP Suburban Nature. Her folksy tunes were given some heft from a four-piece backing band (which included Centro-matic's Scott Danbom on keys), but it was clear from the start that Jaffe was able to control the crowd all by herself. I've never heard Off Broadway as quiet and reverent as last night, especially for an up-and-coming opening act. The soft-touch opening to "Vulnerable" was magnetic, as was Jaffe's duet with Will Johnson. It takes some vocal confidence to go toe-to-toe with a singer like Johnson, but Jaffe was an apt foil. (Johnson, ever the self-effacer, was gracious in sharing the stage.) But confidence is not a worry for Jaffe: she convinced the crowd to engage in a little sing-along for the closing song "Before You Go." Such a move can come off as hokey or cheap, but last night it showed how quickly and deeply her songs can sink under the skin, even on first listen.
Personal Bias: I first came across Centro-matic as a college sophomore at Saint Louis University, when our radio station, KSLU, brought the Old 97's and Centro-matic to the much-missed Firehouse for a show. I was in charge of setting up the green room with the items on Centro-matic's rider: they requested a six-pack of Coke and a bag of mini Hershey's bars. The sheer happiness they expressed at receiving such a meager offering made me a fan before I ever heard a note. I haven't missed one of the band's shows since.
Overheard: -"When are Centro-matic, Sarah Jaffe and Midlake gonna form a Denton super-group?" Fellow RFT scribe Roy Kasten, after Johnson joined Jaffe during her set. -"It's like an all-star line-up of St. Louis bands in here." Indeed, I spotted members of the Bottle Rockets, Magnolia Summer, Kentucky Knife Fight, the Blind Nils and Union Electric, among others, in the crowd. Even first-ballot Hall of Famer Jay Farrar was in the house. -"Why aren't these guys more popular?" A first-time show-goer.
1. Fountains of Fire 2. Against the Lines 3. Iso-Residue 4. Huge in Every City 5. All the Talkers 6. ? 7. The Mighty Midshipman 8. Covered Up in Mines 9. Calling Thermatico 10. The Rat Patrol and DJs 11. Patience for the Ride 12. I See Through You 13. Triggers and Trash Heaps 14. Flashes & Cables 15. The Blisters May Come 16. Only in My Double Mind 17. Innocence Kindly Waits Encore 18. All the Lightning Rods 19. Am I the Manager or Am I Not?