CentroMatic | 09.13.08

live_centro-matic.jpgAs far as rock goes, Centro-Matic are just the band to close a show and burn the house down in a fashion worthy of throwing the "’n’ roll" to the end and scratching the "roots" from the front.




Billiken Club, St. Louis

Saturday was a good night: Tropical Depression Ike’s water didn’t break before or after the wonderful show at the Billiken Club featuring Ohtis and headlined by Centro-Matic. It’s weird how things work out. It was like I was being rewarded for some unwelcome misfortune, that I was in the midst of suffering. Needless to say, this night was about resolving existential crises. Well, not really. It was about, if nights can really be about anything, the power of distinctly American music, of all sorts.

I couldn’t make the Centro-Matic show in the spring as part of Twangfest, so when I found out they were playing in Columbia September 13, I was ready to make a road trip, but a little birdie told me that Pollstar.com was wrong, and they were playing a free show at the Billiken Club. St. Louisans and visitors to the city, you missed one steal of a deal. Two great bands played here, not somewhere else you had to burn major gas to get to; they played St. Louis for free. Why weren’t you with me, causing a fire hazard based on maximum occupancy in the bottom floor of the Busch Student Center on SLU’s campus? Ponder that. Me, I’ve got a show to tell you about in the meantime.

Ohtis is a band for people who like music that engages your imagination in pleasant ways, and demands your attention, in a good way. Sam Swinson is a crooner in the truest since, a warm-voiced focal point in a slow churning, lightly seasoned stew of ’50s era pop, ’60s era folk and jazz, with a heavy helping of "post-millennial" Indie rock. As I have learned, lots of words yield lots of confusion; if you are the said confused, my apologies. Ohtis was stripped down to a three-piece: 12-string acoustic guitar, electric bass and drums. Adam Pressley, primarily the lead guitarist in the touring version of Ohtis, was filling in for their recently married bass player. As a result, his partnership with Swinson shone through with some of the most dynamic and melodic bass playing and arrangements I’ve heard in a while. As a co-writer and producer of their latest album, he know just when to chime in with an excellent vocal harmony; the result: bliss akin to Simon & Garfunkel, but for fans of the Shins, They Might Be Giants or the Flaming Lips circa Yoshimi. The recently added drummer, just learned the songs from their one-week-old album If This Country Had a Heart, That’s Where I Was Born, but we wouldn’t have known had they not told us. Ohtis was tight, a pleasant reflection of how relevant and exciting it can be to hear the music of your lifetime in the hands of a couple of creative souls with tasteful sensibilities.

In what was a clever twist, Undertow management put a show together that really showcased the beauty and power of what a lot of people would call both folk and roots rock. Oddly enough, it seems you have to be an indie band to be free to pursue those genres with any success these days. Ohtis would be the folk end of the rock spectrum (some would call it freak folk) and would be the roots, but ain’t it all rock anyways?

As far as rock goes, Centro-Matic are just the band to close a show and burn the house down in a fashion worthy of throwing the "’n’ roll" to the end and scratching the "roots" from the front. Will Johnson and Co. capture the dusk-chasing immediacy of a sunset drive out of town at high speeds, with unraveling emotions and a knot in your stomach. Live, the soft-spoken, whimsical Johnson is welcoming, and committed to being part of the motivational machine that Centro-Matic actually is. Their raw power is broadcast loudly, but not so overdriven that you can’t appreciate some very catchy, legitimately radio-friendly, riffs, elegant violin (or fiddle, if your Midwestern pride requires).

The hook in the worm is that when I hear Centro-Matic, I feel like I’m hearing the perfection of an art form most would credit to Neil Young, by way of Springsteen, by way of Wilco. Thing is, Neil Young’s voice doesn’t do it for those who can’t take nasally, high-pitched warbling. Springsteen baritone and authentic New Jersey country twang and over-compressed synth-heavy production from his ’80s prime (and obligatory sax solos, sorry Clarence) can ruin it or, at best, date it to the point of being instantly ironic if anyone else does it besides The Boss and the E Street Band. Wilco, as solid and established as they are, write toe-tapping tunes more often than fist-pumping anthems, music as coolly comfortable in its own quirks as it is accomplished. Centro-Matic as a band avoids the pitfalls of being overwhelmed by any particular style. To put it in Goldilocks, terms they’re "just right."

Johnson has a warm, yet roughed-up tenor, western, but not so much that it distracts from his gift for melody and phrasing. Scott Danbom’s high harmonies are dead on, the meringue that sweetens the sound. Every band could use a Danbom, working as violin player, keyboardist and bassist on several numbers, when Mark Hedman abandoned bass to throw down on guitar. Hedman, in that regard, showed his chops with inspired playing, both lead and rhythm, that squared off with Johnson’s own penchant for melodic, horizon-spanning solos. Matt Pence, producer/drummer, kept the set propulsive, seldom slowing down or letting up, except when appropriate, and carried the momentum throughout the night.

After an unwelcome close to the set, and ultimately this leg of their tour supporting their June release Dual Hawks, Johnson took the stage solo for an encore. After that intimate moment with the audience, he was joined by the full band for a Woodstock ’94 moshpit-worthy cover of "Save It for Later" (a song I’d forgotten about until I heard a fan ask Johnson if they were still doing it in their sets) by Harvey Danger. The kids at SLU don’t know how good they got it. Lucky for us, this show was open to the public, too, and at no cost. Why watch the Cardinals lose when you can hear great music like this and still get a beer and nachos? | Willie E. Smith

Highlights from the sets:

"Bloodshed on Calvary"
"Downtown to Your Heart"
"American Christian"
"Hatefully in Love"

"Rat Patrol and DJs"
"The Mighty Midshipman"
"Quality Strange"
"Calling Thermatico"
"I, the Kite"

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