Spaceland, 9/2/08: South San Gabriel, Sleepercar, Centro-matic

South San Gabriel opens the night around 930p. That is to say, Will Johnson lets some rumbling, ethereal low “D” chords dribble out of his amp and hover over our heads for a bit, setting the tone for the rest of the evening. For the unfamiliar (read: non-alt-country fans and/or people who have not spent a lengthy amount of time in Texas the last decade or so), South San Gabriel is actually an offshoot project of the evening’s headlining act, Centro-matic, the difference here being they bring a few guests up on stage, go for the atmosphere and play nothing but softer, sadder, more subdued songs than they presumably will in a couple of hours. We’re getting both versions of the band this evening because they’ve recently released Dual Hawks, a double album – both band names on the same label, one record per band name – and they’re touring to support it. (This is the kind of thing that happens when you have somebody like Will Johnson writing way too many songs.) I’m actually listening to the second album on vinyl right this second; give me a few days to let you know which iteration I prefer. All I can say at this point is that having past and present members of David Byrne-approved Brave Combo contribute to your ambitious “double band double album” can surely only help. Back to the set: The pedal steel is in full effect and admittedly, the heartbreak-in-the-desert vibe is sinking deeper into my skin with each warbling word, each extended note, each sip of whiskey. The set eventually ends as it began: on a very quiet note. This tour marks the first time they’ve taken this particular iteration of the band on the road, outside Texas. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

Jim Ward’s (Sparta, At The Drive-In) latest outfit Sleepercar has apparently been in the works for a while: According to Jim the first time they played live was back in 2005, opening for another one of my favorite Texas musicians, David Garza, and the album West Texas dropped in late April of this year. All that aside, I must admit I came in ice cold, not knowing what to expect and wondering if he’d bring the noise or what. Seeing as how the pedal steel is still on the stage and the band is sandwiched between the two Will Johnson-helmed sets, you’d be correct in guessing that Sleepercar is alt-country, actually having just completed a lengthy tour supporting the Old 97s. Verdict: They sound fantastic; very tight touring group we have assembled here. Jim sounds great of course. I’m checking out Gabe’s beard as he sits at the pedal. (Don’t ask, suffice say it’s been a facial hair-themed summer.) I scrutinize. I approve, wholeheartedly. But the next time I look up, Gabe’s beard has changed – hold – so has his face – wha!? That ain’t Gabe, is that Chris? These guys are running around swapping instruments, I’m losing track of the action. I get into a brief conversation regarding Spaceland, pedal steels and the seeming lack of straight-ahead country music venues in Los Angeles proper, after the set. Seriously – where are the live country bars in Los Angeles!? Don’t say the Farmer’s Market. Who’s playing Cinema Bar these days? Anyhow, amidst all this venue speculation I forget to ask Jim if he remembers that Beck-helmed “This Ain’t No Picnic” festival At The Drive-In played down in Orange County way back in 2000, the one and only time I caught ATDI live – just amazing.

Following Sleepercar the members of Centro-matic, sans pedal steel this time, re-take the stage and make considerably louder noises than they did just a couple of hours prior. Pitchfork gives Dual Hawks a solid review, yet still manages to reduce the effort to a glorified Will Johnson solo project with ten or eleven guests. I’d make a stronger argument that while the songs on both albums are of course Will’s, there really is no Centro-matic (or South San Gabriel) without Scott Danbom (vocals, violin, keyboards, bass), Mark Hedman (bass, guitar) and Matt Pence (drums). I’d wager all four of those guys would damn well tell you the same after more than ten years of making killer music together.

Both All three bands are making their way up the coast now, so if you’re up in Seattle with Bumbershoot post-partum depression, hit the High Dive on Friday. You won’t be disappointed.

» South San Gabriel (Myspace)
» Sleepercar (Myspace) | official site
» Centro-matic (Myspace) | official site