After almost 18 years as a group, the four gentlemen who make up Centro-matic are on their very last tour together. Scott Danbom, Mark Hedman, Matt Pence and Will Johnson are spending the brunt of December in a van, driving across the country to play farewell sets in venues they've grown to know well. Along the way they're being joined by old friends, both as opening acts and as onstage guests.
This fraternal journey leads up to a finale at Dan's Silverleaf, which will also be a homecoming of sorts. Centro-matic have played the Denton venue many times, both at its original location and at its current home.
It's just past noon on a Tuesday, and I'm sitting in Norma's Café in Oak Cliff, waiting on the guys from Centro-matic to finish loading in across the street at the historic Kessler Theater. Surrounded by groups of blue-collar workers enjoying their lunch break, I wonder why the successful band is calling it quits so soon after putting out their 11th album, Take Pride in Your Long Odds, which has seen endless critical praise since May, when it became available to stream on Paste Magazine's website.
Once the guys get to Norma's and I begin talking with them, I start to understand.
They say that being in a band is like a marriage, which makes sense; all relationships are about partnership. Whether that partnership is romantic, friendly or professional, tension inevitably builds over time. So, you'd expect a lot of it in a group that's been together as long as Centro-matic.
But there's no tension. Instead there's a weary camaraderie. These are men who have been working and creating together for nearly 20 years and that doesn't happen without some sort of miracle. But here we are, sitting in Norma's. Danbom eats a hamburger, Hedman a grilled cheese and Pence an omelet, while Johnson sips tea to soothe his vocal cords. They smile as they take turns telling stories.
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They flatter each other, especially Johnson, who all praise for his writing ability. Before Centro-matic were a band, Johnson says, he gave Pence a demo. One day, as he waited on a street corner in Denton, Pence passed by him in his truck, blasting the demo and singing along to it. Hedman says when he listened to the first demo, he immediately wanted to walk out of his temp job. Pence adds that in retrospect, he's floored by the music they've made together. Danbom shows his innocence when he describes his experience as the youngest member of the band, and how in awe he was of the group when he first met them.
"We were asked, 'What should we take from your story? What can we take from the dissolution of the band?'" says Johnson. "Man, take care of each other. We've taken care of ourselves for half our lives. I would hope the band has reflected the value of our friendships, and the value of our connection and our trust and our care for each other."
This is not a band breaking up because of stress, or out of spite. This is a group of friends who love working together but who are closing a chapter. During our lunch, Johnson comments that he's done being the "loud" band. The whole group agrees that while they're done with Centro, they're too close to stop working together for good. It won't be Centro-matic, but who knows what other projects could develop. After all, almost 20 years of collaboration breed comfort and trust, and many musicians search forever to find that kind of working relationship.
For many years now, Centro-matic have left other musicians striving to match them. They have a legion of imitators; their influence on North Texas artists is beyond question. When the band announced they were splitting, musician after musician took to social media to bemoan the loss, and to share their memories of the group. None of these statements was more powerful than that of the Angelus' Emil Rapstine, who opened for Centro-matic at The Kessler, their last-ever Dallas show.
Rapstine recalled seeing Centro for the first time with a friend at Dan's when he was just 18. "We were so inspired by their performance that we couldn't wait to get home to work on our own music. We had to act fast: They were making magic and we hoped some of it would rub off on us," Rapstine posted. "Fast forward several years to when I was just getting the Angelus off the ground and Justin D. Evans appeared in my life with his devout adoration of all things Centro-matic. I knew that although the music of the Angelus was quite stylistically different, there would be no escaping their influence."
Surely, much of the crowd at The Kessler that night shared those sentiments. Just like the band themselves did at Norma's, fans have also been sharing their Centro memories with each other. One fan gets a faraway look as he talks about seeing the group perform at his school, and how he's followed them ever since. Another fan explains, with an air of sadness, how she cherishes the opportunity to say goodbye. A friend of mine says he's bummed that it's ending, but he respects that they're going out on their own terms. I get multiple texts from people lamenting that they couldn't make the show -- and all of this hours before it even starts.
When the band takes the stage, the crowd erupts in joy; they're here to celebrate the music they love one last time, and they're not going to do it quietly. Luckily for them, Centro are on fire. Johnson loves baseball, so it's fitting to say that the group threw a perfect game at the Kessler. Pence's work on the drums is like a fastball that consistently hits 96 mph on the radar gun, delivered with such ferocity that he breaks a drumstick two songs into the set. Hedman and Johnson's bass and guitar work switches between a change-up and a 4-seamer. And Danbom, the multi-instrumentalist, proves to be the wild card -- his easy way of floating from instrument to instrument is the curveball that takes Centro to another level.
It's an exciting set that jumps all over the band's catalogue, and even features the first live performance of a few songs. The crowd eats it up. They're elated just to be there, to watch the band make its mark on Dallas one last time. Many will also show up in Denton this weekend to bid a final farewell. It's a shame it's almost over, but damn if the band and its fans aren't going out in style.
After three nights in Denton, Danbom, Hedman, Pence and Johnson will go their separate ways. Each will return to their families for the holidays with the knowledge that they created something memorable, something that people loved, something that even as they leave it behind, they can be proud of.
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"It's been a very deep labor of love for half of our lives," Johnson says. "We've become adults while doing it." All things must end, but Centro-matic are ending on their own terms, and they're doing it right where it all began.
Centro-matic Farewell Tour, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, December 19 and 20, and 7 p.m. Sunday, December 21, at Dan's Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St., Denton, danssilverleaf.com
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