Port of L.A.
Any fan of The Growlers knows that when parsing the words of philosophical jester Brooks Nielsen, even the smallest, throwaway jokes sometimes bear the biggest meaning. After taking a swig of the crowd’s intoxicating energy following their opening song “Drinkin’ the Juice Blues,” the frontman donning a galactic onesie and a face covered in skeletal makeup surveyed the hazy, Halloween crowd of thousands at Growlers Six who came out to rage just as they had years prior when this little party used to be called Beach Goth. Much like the band’s music, the scene felt like an homage to something from the past, before simpler times regretfully turned into much more complicated ones.
“Thank you, friends,” Nielsen said with a soused lilt to his weezy timbre. “Give us our chance to redeem ourselves, not by ourselves, with our friends…” That brief comment carried a lot of weight, given the year’s worth of drama that the band, their name and the name of their former homecoming festival have endured in the wake of a fallout with the Observatory which hosted Beach Goth and shepherded its growth until last year’s legendary shit show.
For those lucky enough to have only read about it instead of paying money to experience it, the list of problems plaguing last year’s Beach Goth was about as long as Bernie Madoff’s rap sheet. Though more than just robbing many fans of their time and money, the rain-soaked chaos dragged one of OC’s most beloved festivals through the mud. And the backlash was real. Weeks later, a lawsuit leveled against the Growlers by Observatory’s parent company Noise Group over the rights to the Beach Goth brand put the kibosh on any hope of the Growlers returning to the popular Santa Ana venue. And despite a dubious Facebook apology to their angry fans, few things served to really temper the storm for the band except time. And, of course, the ability to throw a much better festival this year with the help of their new big-budget buddies Live Nation and SGE.
The first thing most people noticed this year about the site of Growlers Six at Berth 46 at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro was the size of the place. Reminiscent of the OC Fairgrounds, the overall area of the fest provided enough room for three stages and a host of well planned diversions dropped throughout the makeshift carnival atmosphere. The surroundings felt like a fresh start. Sure, it was still a parking lot like the Observatory but in an entirely different context, surrounded by the Pacific, a few miles from the Growlers’ adopted hometown of Long Beach where they earned their swagger. The ocean breeze coupled with rusty barges passing through the port with rows of dilapidated warehouses nearby felt like a slice of Oakland with swaying palm trees. In short, it was a setting finally worthy of the culture of Beach Goth.
Part of the Growlers Six’s charm was the ability to roam freely without oppressive overcrowding and enjoy a festival with hardly any lines for anything. Beer and cocktail booths were plentiful and we never waited more than a few minutes in a food line. This is also what made the vibe feel less like a parking lot and more of an overall experience to the point where people were laying down on the asphalt like it was the grass of the polo fields. On Sunday, we witnessed a couple making out and rounding third base under the glowing light of one of the inflatable Beach Goth girl mascots.
But most importantly, it felt like The Growlers touch was omnipresent without feeling overbearing. Even people who didn’t know much about them could get the sense of a band that enjoys laughing at the macabre. From the coffin straddling transvestites performing cabaret inside the smokey Death of Clown tent to the exhaust pipe anarchy of a motorcycle stuntman wowing rabid crowds in the enclosed Rhett Rotten’s Wall of Death, the festival’s side entertainment was definitely not for the faint of heart. Neither were most of the bands who took the stage over the two-day event.
The lineup revolved around a cadre of trailblazers who’ve forged their careers through playing by their own rules. Chief among them of course was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Few bands in the last decade in a half have embodied the true DNA of punk rock in every move they make from their formation in Brooklyn in 2000 to their self-imposed hiatus in 2014. Taking the stage on Saturday the day after their heroic first show in three years at the Fonda, front woman Karen O was a mic-swallowing bolt of electricity decked out in a studded psychedelic biker jacket with a bad ass attitude to match. Their set was mostly entrenched in their debut album Fever to Tell which recaptured the spirit of punk in the early 00s but still felt vital enough to squash most of unapologetically safe hipster bands that are simply grist for the mill of today’s festival circuit. Backed by her trusty, jazz-handed drummer Brian Chase and the spectral guitar work of Nick Zinner (and a cameo from the group’s former bassist Imaad Wasif), the lead singer’s trademark curtain of black bangs shook wildly as she reveled in every moment the band’s collective energy. For a brief moment, it felt as if the band never left during radio hits “Gold Lion,” “Zero,” “MAPS,” and “Heads Will Roll.”
Further examples of the fest’s fabulous bookings played out over the weekend. Modest Mouse, fronted by notoriously unpredictable singer Isaac Brock, genuinely rocked the fuck out of the main stage displaying a kind of focused vigor that makes his erratically shambolic tunes work when given the proper attention. There was the twerk-inducing artistry of Juvenile which, just like good Southern friend chicken, is still flavorful and never dry. The Saharan desert blues courtesy of Malian band Tinariwen, created the perfect soundtrack to sunset for Saturday as ships faded into the purple horizon. And of course what San Pedro festival would be complete without the city’s unofficial mayor Mike Watt bashing away on the bass with the Secondmen?
Sunday was equally impressive for the most part as bands like Steel Pulse, Bad Brains and Hepcat all showcased elements of reggae synonymous with the the fest’s coastal San Pedro Surroundings. The B-52s proved that the original members aging well into their 60s have license to be even weirder than they were decades ago, putting on the most entertaining and flamboyant set this side of 1982. The squall of sound put forth by the Butt Hole Surfers brought in the perfect flavor of slack-heavy hard rock and an additional level of old-school credibility introduced to the festival by The Weirdos and Fear. Every band seemed to have a place in the constellation of the Growlers orbit in some way, shape or form…even Girl Talk’s sweaty, mashup mayhem of Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf” with Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” felt oddly emblematic of the band’s geographical roots during their early days transitioning from OC to Long Beach. The only negatives we saw or heard about involved a few injured stage divers (not a good idea to try that on asphalt, kids) and some crazy fan who attacked The Regrettes singer Lydia Knight which led to them canceling the rest of their set only one and a half songs in.
But when it came time to headline both nights of Growlers Six, the festival’s namesake band proved that they’re far beyond their shaggy surf bum beginnings. But they still like to retain the feeling in the way they present their music by refusing to look like they take themselves seriously. In traditional Beach Goth fashion, the band coordinated their costumes and face paint with different motifs each night (Saturday’s theme seemed to be space-age skeletons whereas Sunday was sort of a tin man, sad clown vibe).
Both nights, the band sounded on point. Their set, which anyone who’s seen them live is pretty familiar with by now, was perfectly dialed in. Even during points where their show traditionally tends to sag with too many similar-sounding songs, they’re now able to switch it up with songs from City Club, their latest album which has proved divisive amongst longtime Growlers fans in the past. But seeing the set for a second time since Beach Goth 5, it’s easier to appreciate the difference in sonic textures between Hung at Heart, Chinese Fountain and City Club, three distinct phases of their sound.
Even though Nielsen’s tuft of blond hair sorta looks a mid ’90s homage to Meg Ryan, somehow it still works for him and definitely the overall branding vibe of the fest in a weird way. His cigarette-addled soul casts a pall of grief and weary wisdom over the band’s sunny, reggae-informed rhythms. The rollicking bounce of their songs will always be the life of the party. While their stage show is great and the band performed flawlessly, it wasn’t anything Earth-shattering compared to what we already know about them.
However, the difference between this set and last year’s Beach Goth was that they made it a point to close out the festival and be the focal point of it like the old days. It worked a lot better than some bloated marquee headliner like Bon Iver who had no connection with them or the culture of their old festival. They put themselves back on top, which is how it should’ve been, regardless of what the event is called. And in an effort to make it right with their fans after last year’s debacle, Growlers Six served as a well-crafted apology. Toward the end of Saturday night, the inclusion of their cover of William Onyeabor’s “Good Name,” made for an excellent mic drop and a promise from the band that no matter what, the culture they created before their success in the festival game isn’t going anywhere without them.
“Good name is better than silver and gold,” Nielsen sang. “And no money, no money, no money, no money, no money can buy good name.”