Words by Giles Logan / Pics by Rob Hadley
A disappointingly half full venue for the first show of The Growlers’ UK tour; what will the laconic extremists from Southern California make of it? No sweat. Lights dim, intro music and the band shuffle on stage in City Club macs (they must be melting) and instantly the dreary functionality of the O2 Academy transforms into what could be a Vegas lounge.
“Let’s do this”, announces front man Brooks Nielsen and the band breeze easily into ‘Big Toe’ from 2014’s Chinese Fountain album – a trademark tune of uplifting misery, the breezy rhythm hosting a pained song of suicidal heartbreak. “She’s got me on the bridge looking down at the old cold river”. Who opens a set with a song about self destruction? This is the dark beauty of The Growlers. Their mischievous lyricism is delivered with a cute self referential nod and a wink; Nielsen has an enormous cheeky glint in his eye with lines such as “she can hex like a crow”. It’s a theme that runs through their music: hey guys, shit happens but we’ve got this.
The Growlers’ approach to set lists is a bit like their approach to genre, happily skitting from surf, rock blues and in the instance of ‘Hiding under The Covers’, from 2013’s Gilded Pleasures album, to a greasy cha-cha-cha through more heartbreak. “It’s hard to choose the right thing to do when you’re so in love”, croons Nielsen in that glorious West Coast drawl of his.
Coming off like a weird hybrid of Jim Morrison and Elvis, snake hipped Nielsen is a great front man. An infectious personality with an inviting smile he welcomes us into The Growlers world with honest warmth. “We’re going to rush through as many songs as we can before curfew, been a long time since we had a curfew”. The whole band posses an addictive enthusiasm and swagger; with major line up changes before last year’s City Club album fans baulked, but there is a collective energy and humour about them, shared smiles and laughter – they’re having fun if we have fun.
‘Naked Kids’ from The Growlers’ third album, Hung At Heart, with its gospel keyboard, is a rousing stab at redemption and enlightenment – “I picked myself above the ground” intones Nielsen with raw Southern pain, now minus his City Club mac and wearing the coolest bowling shirt we’ve ever seen. A rapt and youthful audience with arms aloft share in this sweaty epiphany; there’s even kids on shoulders, “go for it boys” smiles Nielsen.
One of the set highlights is ‘Night Ride’ from The Growlers’ latest album, City Club – a wickedly funky rhythm and a lingering, almost yearning, look back at memories of bacchanalian excess with a deliciously sing-a-long refrain: “over and over and over again, till you can no longer pretend you are sane”. There is a charmingly shambolic nonchalance, as The Growlers enter a hazy reverie in a song that has been suggested is aimed at ex-members of the band.
With such an incredible back catalogue of material spread over five albums, the classics continue with the dreamy psychedelic sprawl of ‘Nobody Owns You’, the downbeat joy of ‘Too Many Times’ and a journey into the sleazy guilt of ‘Feelin’ Good’: “just cause it feels good, doesn’t mean it’s right”. There’s even an up tempo (ish) moment as playful keyboards guide us through ‘One Million Lovers’, as “something strange just takes over you”.
“Well let’s fucking go”, threatens Nielsen as another set highlight growls into life: ‘Vacant Lot’, again from City Club. Harder edged than other tunes, it’s lumbering pile-driving riff joins a swirl of keyboard and tribal drums, really hammering home “like a bullet train”. Cue a mini mosh pit, mass sing-a-long “way down in the valley of the mud”. There’s even time for some human beat boxing, as the whole song is accompanied by epileptic levels of strobe.
Then as if to confuse us with their rampant eclecticism, The Growlers follow this with a disco-lite rendition of ‘Pet Shop Eyes’ and the dub bop happy ‘I’ll Be Around’ – a song that confounds with its major rock out chorus. “Ignorance is complacency”, too right. For those that didn’t catch The Growlers in Birmingham, you missed a classic.
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