Farewell, Centro-matic

After 17 years, 11 albums and numerous concerts, the venerable Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic is calling it quits. I’m sad to see them go. At least, we’ll still have the records, including classics like 2003’s Love You Just the Same. And we’ll surely be hearing more from the band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Johnson, as well as the other musicians who have been playing in Centro for all these years: drummer Matt Pence, keyboardist-bassist Scott Danbom and bassist-guitarist Mark Hedman. But for the foreseeable future, we won’t get another chance to see this band live.

Centro-matic’s farewell tour included a stop at Schubas on Monday, Dec. 15. Johnson told the audience that Chicago has always been one of the cities where Centro-matic felt the most welcome on its tours, ever since the band starting hitting the road in 1998. For one last time, Centro-matic delivered charged versions of its greatest “hits.” Near the end of the show — I believe it was during “Fidgeting Wildly,” a song from the first Centro-matic album, 1997’s Redo the Stacks — the band dug hard into the final chords. As Johnson kicked up a leg and Pence pounded hard on the drums, it seemed like the whole stage was shaking. A glorious moment it was. So long, Centro-matic.

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Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon
Opening band Telegraph Canyon

Centro-matic at the Beat Kitchen

The Denton, Texas, rock band Centro-matic just released its first record in three years, Take Pride by Your Long Odds, as well as a reissue of its first album, Redo the Stacks, from 1997. A dependable band for the past 17 years, Centro-matic made a welcome return to Chicago on Saturday night for a show at the Beat Kitchen, playing a slew of new songs as well as the classics fans expect. And the encore included a cover of the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

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Opening act the Gun Shy
Opening act the Gun Shy

Centro-matic at Schubas


When you see concerts week in and week out at the same venues, you start to take them for granted. I haven’t been at Schubas much in the past year, but I’ve been back a few times this week, and it felt like returning home after a long absence. I got the sense that Will Johnson, the frontman of Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic, might be feeling something similar when his band played on the Schubas stage Monday night (Sept. 23). Midway through the set, Johnson paused to say what a pleasure it was to be playing again in “one of the most sacred, sacred” music rooms in the country. Indeed — just think of all the great music that has vibrated that wooden arch above the Schubas stage over the years.

Centro-matic is working on a new album, and the band played a bit of the new music, mixed in with songs from throughout its career. Johnson’s distinctive voice — that magically strange whine of his — was in fine form, sounding beautifully forlorn. And these four musicians have been playing together for so long that they make it look like the most natural thing in the world.

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10 Years Ago Today: South San Gabriel

The only reason I thought about this anniversary is that I happened to pull out my CD of South San Gabriel’s album Welcome, Convalescence last week. And I just happen to have a copy that was sent out to the press before the album’s official release date. So there’s a sticker on the jewel case that says: “National Release APRIL 11, 2003.” Ten years ago today.


I doubt if anyone else is making note of this anniversary. It’s probably the most obscure record I included in my top 12 list of the best albums from the last decade. But it’s the most magnificent recording that Denton, Texas, singer-songwriter Will Johnson has made in his prolific career fronting Centro-matic, making solo records, collaborating with many other artists and occasionally making music with a side-project sort of group called South San Gabriel.

While Centro-matic plays a style of rock somewhere between power pop, roots rock and lo-fi post-punk, South San Gabriel’s Welcome, Convalescence layers orchestral touches and menacing abstract noise on top of Johnson’s collection of melancholy songs. Death and violence are always lurking nearby in this set of lyrics. The record opens with the line, “Make no mistake, we’ll be the ones to happily set you on fire,” and goes on to mention gunshots, dagger, slings, hammers, poisonous arrows, axes and arson. (“At your feet was a mouthpiece and nozzle/Fit for the gas spreading all through the house.”)

There’s a way out of the darkness. In the final track, nearly buried by a dense, beautiful cacophony, Johnson (or the character in his lyrics, anyway) travels “quietly out from the passage/if only to see the Splinter Angelic.” I’m still not sure exactly what the Splinter Angelic is, but it’s a fitting description of the evocative music South San Gabriel made on this record, released a decade ago today.

The CD of Welcome, Convalescence is out of stock at the Undertow record label’s online store, but MP3s can be purchased here.

Centro-Matic at Schubas

At a few of the recent concerts I’ve seen, good performances have been followed by rather tepid applause. Audiences seemed bored or too lazy or maybe too tired because of the late hour to clap loudly enough to demand an encore. This was not the case Sunday night (July 3) when Centro-Matic played at Schubas. The crowd was loud, sounding very glad indeed to hear this band from Denton, Texas, playing in Chicago for the first time in a couple of years. There was no doubt that these fans wanted to hear an encore, and they got it. (Actually, they got two encores.)

Centro-Matic recently released a album, Candidate Waltz, and the set featured a few of the new songs, including the standout track, “Only in My Double Mind,” which has all of the qualities of a trademark Centro anthem: ringing chords, a thumping beat and Will Johnson’s distinctive, slightly creaky vocals — all that, with a soaring chorus and lots of “ahhs.”

Of course, Centro-Matic also played some of its staple songs, including several tracks from the 2003 album that remains one of its best, Love You Just the Same. And the band dug out two songs from its very first album, 1996’s lo-fi Redo the Stacks, “Rock and Roll Eyes” and “Am I the Manager Or Am I Not?” And Centro-Matic can also be counted on to play a quirky cover, and this time, it was Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Through it all, Johnson kicked up his legs as he played guitar while his longtime bandmates — Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman — gave the music both driving force and subtle shades. It was yet another triumphant show for one of indie rock’s most dependable bands, with a pretty nice opening set by Sarah Jaffe.