The Growlers Give OC a Love Test at the Observatory
Years ago when I first started watching the Growlers perform, the Couples recordings had just transitioned into their “Are You In Or Out?” vinyl. The first time I interviewed Brooks Nielsen, the boys were just experiencing their first of many national tours. Every time they returned home from their latest musical excursion, their local fans seemed to be exponentially multiplying.
Then came the birth of the Observatory concert venue rehabilitated from the remains of the fading Galaxy Theatre. From that modest first Beach Goth festival of only 15 local bands on the bill blossomed many more sold-out shows and three more Beach Goth festivals, each much bigger than the last. By 2013, the Growlers substantiated their musical collection with their release, “Hung At Heart,” which was followed by “Gilded Pleasures” late in the same year. By the time “Chinese Fountain” hit shelves in 2014, the Growlers had become ambassadors of the Orange County music scene with a fan-base so big that their back-to-back Valentine’s weekend shows of their 2016 tour quickly sold out in their local county.
Upon entering the Observatory grounds, the attendees were greeted by souped-up classic Impalas parked near the box office meant to set the classic mood. Romantic 60s soul music crooned from a PA set up just outside the entrance. As we waited in line, I overheard a young man say, “I’m almost more stoked to see Jonathan Richman than I am to see the Growlers.” Despite that comment, most of the patrons were really there solely to see the main act.
An electric current saturated the air at the Growlers second show of their dubbed “California Winter” tour. Since the event happened to fall on Valentine’s Day, lovebirds attended in droves. Dudes pulled out their cleanest laundry and nicest pair of Vans, and chicks slipped into short skirts and their cutest crop tops. Swirling around in excitement, the attendees were immersed in a scene set for grungy psychedelic romance. And in their view, could there be anything more saccharine than Brooks Nielsen serenading a venue full of young ladies and gentlemen? In the city of Santa Ana, I think not.
To start the lovefest, the legendary Jonathan Richman with drummer Tommy Larkins opened the evening. Although just two musicians, they were able to invigorate the crowd via Richman’s sweet singing in dual languages. He was almost unable to contain his enthusiasm while energetically strumming the acoustic guitar, shaking his sleigh bells, and speaking intensely to all there to listen. The new generation of Growler fans were introduced to this long-standing singer-songwriter who has been playing Orange County for longer than most of his audience has been alive, and they accepted with fervor.
For the main event, both levels of the house were packed to capacity. With lead singer Nielsen recently married, and keyboard and guitarist Kyle Straka on his way down the aisle in April, love was definitely in the air for this Valentine’s show. As expected, the Growlers were fashionably late to start their set. Pandemonium struck once the blacked-out stage started billowing fog, and one by one the band members, consisting of the additional Matt Taylor on lead guitar, Anthony Perry on bass, Scott Montoya on drums, and a new member on percussion filed onto stage. Once Nielsen entered, there was an uproar from the audience, and the beat surged and revealed “Graveyard’s Full” off of their Hot Tropics album. Simulants wafted into the air and the vibe was laid-back, with the band members on stage falling into a well-practiced routine that had the entire Observatory grooving and cuddling close to their date.
With every move he made, Nielsen inspired a response from spectators, like a melodic ringleader backed by an artillery of best friends whom have now been around the world together in the name of music. Most times, a song would start and the entire room of bodies would become lost in the music, chanting along word for word while twisting in rhythmic motions. Every song, like “Dull Boy,” carries a story of some sort, and people were stirred by the emotion that wafted from the speakers and out onto them, causing an equivalent reaction in audience members.
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After almost a two-hour set encompassing tracks from all their recent releases, the band took a quick exit, only to enter again for their encore fanatically welcomed by attendees. Smart phones emerged to catch the final moments left with this audience’s favorite Orange County band. Despite the feeling of romance, Nielsen reminds during “Love Test” that, “Love isn’t as easy as it seems.” It was obvious the Growlers were grateful, as depicted by Nielsen's wide grin as he bid his admirers goodnight with admiration. As we exited the venue, it seemed like the warm Santa Ana winds had started to swirl, as if the band had somehow incited a warm climate change during their set. With another show set for Monday night, they have one more date with The Observatory before travelling down to North Park, San Diego for their final two shows of this quick California tour.
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