On Saturday, midway through The Growlers' headlining set, frontman Brooks Nielsen gazed into the sold-out crowd at The Observatory in Santa Ana, Calif., and told what began as a humorous tale: A friend had passed out at a Growlers show, woke up and found himself locked in the venue.
Searching high and low for an exit, the fan was unsuccessful. Finally he saw someone and called out. Nothing. Angry, he called out a second time and poof: The figure disappeared.
With news of the apparition, the crowd was silent for the first time that evening. They either had The Heebie-Geebies (extra credit if you know that's the original name of The Growlers) or just were hungry for more tunes.
Thankfully, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based band had plenty for their (almost) hometown crowd.
For the past six years, the five-piece known for its low-fi, psychedelic, countrified surf rock has been crafting dreamy pop that's tough to pin down. Like the scent of skunk, you know it if you smell it. Imagine The Strokes if they surfed and you'd be at the right break, if not sitting right on the peak.
The Growlers and Burger Records created Beach Goth Party last year, invited a grip of neo-psychedelic and modern surf-rock bands to play and asked fans to dress up for the occasion. In return, The Growlers headlined, promoting their demo cassette tape, "Beach Goth," which included songs that would be released on January's excellent album, "Hung at Heart." (The record has received more press for its backstory than for its music: The collection of songs was born out of an album recorded with Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach that the band scrapped.)
For two nights this weekend, The Growlers reprised that role, headlining Beach Goth Party II at this Orange County club with two stages and 20-plus bands per night. Like last year, The Growlers also had new material -- tunes from their EP, "Gilded Pleasures" -- and a Gothic Gidget aesthetic.
Broken surfboards turned into tombstones ("RIP Andy Irons," "RIP Rip Van Winkle," "RIP King of Pop") littered the stage. A graffitied black lifeguard chair was stage left, hosting a rotating cast of ghosts, ghouls in love and gargoyles. Neon camels bookended the wooden waves breaking stage right to stage left. The band, who regularly wears costumes when they play, appeared at home surrounded by the beach-graveyard detritus -- especially Nielsen, who grew up surfing at Salt Creek in nearby Laguna Beach and whose quiver included 30 broken boards. (He was probably on a first-name basis with the tombstones.)
If the stage was the beach, the crowd was the zombie-packed sea. The entire floor was shoulder to shoulder -- perfect conditions for crowd surfers. A fraction of them washed up over the barriers into the narrow press pit full of photographers and bouncers. One young brunette did so without attracting the attention of security, posting up for a song before she hopped on stage, slinking, sauntering and dancing toward the back of it without getting as much as a nod of acknowledgement from the band before disappearing into the scrum of the hangers-on. (There were more people on stage than a duet between The Polyphonic Spree and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.)
A few bars later, she reappeared and danced too close to Nielsen. He shook his head, delivering the international sign for "Oh, hell no," and escorted her off the stage without missing a beat.
Watch The Growlers and you very much feel like you're watching Nielsen's band. He's admitted to being a control freak, saying his father instilled in him the belief that there's a right way and a wrong way to do things. That vision is propelling the band to play "more grown-up tunes," like the new down-tempo "Humdrum Blues."
On Saturday, the pit showed its enthusiasm for the new song by moshing three times as fast as the music. This movement was almost non-stop for the entire evening, creating its own weather. Outside it was cool and breezy like Malibu. Inside? Hot and sticky, like North Carolina's Outer Banks in July.
The new tracks have an R&B influence and were recorded in Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon, which is rich in music history -- Canned Heat, Little Feat, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Devendra Banhart, Marvin Gaye, Stephen Stills, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Mick Fleetwood, Alice Cooper and Van Morrison have all called the area home – and has one of the better surf spots in Los Angeles, Topanga State Beach.
Nielsen lent the spotlight to Kyle Straka (keyboards, guitar) when the band led the crowd in song to celebrate the keyboard player's birthday. Matt Taylor (lead guitar) let his six-string do the talking for all but one song, where he handled lead singing duties. Anthony Braun Perry (bass) and Scott Montoya (drums) piloted the rhythm section all night long and the latter drove one dancer wild: She got up close to the percussionist, started twerking and kept at it for a song or two, reappearing during the encore when she tried to bump and grind with a less-than-enthusiastic Nielsen.
Slow on the draw, she eventually took the hint like the apparition Nielsen's buddy saw many shows ago and disappeared.