I wouldn't call it bad luck, but Friday the 13th seemed to have some strange effect on the space-time continuum. After opening acts Sarah Jaffe and Dove Hunter cleared off the Granada's stage, we were transported back to 2001, when Joe Butcher still played with Pleasant Grove and Centro-matic was a local band.
After more than a year away from Dallas, Centro-matic put on a solid, workmanlike set but rarely seemed to achieve that lift-off that their best shows provide, when you hope they'll just keep playing forever. Maybe that was because their set focused on mid-tempo bar rock, songs that are like the middle ground between their minimalist South San Gabriel output and the fuzzed-out stompers of The Static vs. the Strings Vol. 1, songs that started to sound alike after an hour or so. At times, Johnson seemed to be going through the motions. But when the band played loud and hard—or maybe just when everyone recognized a classic—everything in the room seemed to float, like during the piano-enhanced "Calling Up the Bastards," with the audience shouting Johnson's lyrics back at him. Adding to the family reunion vibe were the hooting, drunken yuppies. Grown-up frat boys, nostalgic for the late-'90s roots rock absorbed during Deep Ellum and Fry Street jaunts, showed up to talk over quiet songs, then yell "Woo!" and throw up the devil-sign during old favorites like "Blisters May Come."
Pleasant Grove was at their best during their quietest, most melancholy songs. Though he'd gone seemingly unnoticed when he sat in on a song early in the set, Butcher got a warm ovation when Marcus Striplin announced he'd be rejoining the band for a few tunes. His mournful pedal-steel guitar licks, swirling in and out of the background, proved the highlight of slow songs like "Only a Mountain"; here's hoping the Butcher/Grove reunion wasn't just a one-off appearance.
But for me, the highlight was seeing Sarah Jaffe for the first time. That's not easy for me to say, because I am a Philistine chauvinist. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would sooner pound chopsticks into my ear canals than listen to a chick with an acoustic guitar. Jaffe's arrangements are somehow simple and yet not, accented onstage with her pretty guitar flourishes and subdued cello, melodeon and drums. Her lyrics aren't hysterical diary entries or saccharine mash notes, and yet they're raw and frank in a way you wouldn't expect from a 21-year-old woman.
Dove Hunter, Jayson Wortham's post-Mandarin band, was a happy marriage of intricate guitar melodies, pedal-steel sadness, psychedelic Fender Rhodes electric piano and a chugging rhythm section.