I am two-and-a-half minutes into the first show of The Growlers’ four-night residency, and I am having a fantastic time.
This is not, in fact, because of the cider I’m sucking down like a British teenager at her first Glastonbury or because I am a fan of Lou Reed’s “Real Good Time Together” — the slightly on-the-nose track the band uses as their walk-on music. It’s because the Growlers are two-and-a-half minutes into the opening night of their residency at The Independent, and truly fucking killing it. Once they finish “Drinkin’ the Juice Blues,” an older cut they’ll revisit several times before the weekend is up, frontman Brooks Nielsen yells, “And we’re off!” He means it.
It gets worse. Following a swaying cover of Eddie Novak’s “Psycho” and halfway through a delightfully sludgy rendition of the irresistibly romantic “City Club,” I’m hanging over the balcony railing and believing every outdated notion about rock ’n’ roll I swore off years ago, namely that this genre was invented by men to woo women. That’s still inaccurate, but even I must admit that “City Club” is the kind of song that every halfway heterosexual woman would like to have written about her. To no one’s surprise, it’s winning over the entire crowd, straight dudes included.
Like The Growlers would stop there. “City Club” jams out and transitions into “Chinese Fountain,” a song that has never once in its three-year history failed to get the people going. The audience can hear the cut coming a third of the way into the transition, but the band takes their sweet time getting there. A zippy cover of William Onyeabor’s “Good Name” follows, and the six-piece keep it bouncing for the remainder of the set — all two-plus hours of it. Only as I’m stumbling onto the sidewalk do I realize that I’ve made minimal notes. Do your damn job tomorrow, I tell myself. You’re a critic. Act like it.
I don’t know it at the time, but I am a fool for thinking I am capable of as much.
Night two is the unequivocal highlight. Nielsen saunters out in a tailored denim jacket and black Converse high-tops, looking plucked straight out of the pages of GQ. There’s a guitarist that wasn’t there the night before, but will stay for the remainder of the residency. It’s Delicate Steve, by the way, which is a name that may or may not matter to you depending on how closely you follow David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. (You should care, but the discussion of how great and viciously underrated Steve Marion is for another article and another day.)
The band opens with “Drinkin’ The Juice Blues” again, and it only gets bolder and bigger and badder from there. The plateaus are so good and steady that it’s borderline torturous. The Growlers aren’t afraid to stay high, or drag a jam out long enough that the crowd practically begs for the beat to drop. I try to think of the last non-Morrissey performer I witnessed hold a crowd for such an extended period of time, but I’m coming up with nothing, and more focused on “Feelin’ Good” from 2011’s Gay Thoughts anyway. (When that particular song hits its peak, the crowd loses its collective shit.)
Night two is, among other things, relentless. It’s a full-throttle high without so much as the occasional low. Leave it to this band to make the first show — a show I would have gone to the death defending mere hours ago — feel like a warmup.
Night two is also relentlessly entertaining. As a frontman, Nielsen never really touches the ground, never breaks character, and never breaks a sweat. Throughout the residency, he never once betrays the charade: a sauntering, half-drunk lounge singer with seventies swagger who sings about love and death and the women he’ll never win over — and it’s thrilling to watch. He’s not much of a talker, but when an audience member hands him a box of Mike & Ike’s, he consults the crowd as to whether or not he should have one. (Spoiler alert: He does.)
By night three, I’m exhausted. This is my Everest and I’m too old to be climbing it. I’m not the 17-year-old punk I used to be. But I’ve committed, and I can’t help but appreciate the band’s choice to find the city-est club they could to showcase City Club rather than fire off a quick double-header at The Fillmore. The Independent is as frills-free as their set-up: reasonably simple lighting, no large props, no bullshit. I pass a couple making out in the red glow of a neon sign and can’t help but find it poetic.
A few songs into the third set of the residency, Nielsen suggests we drink to the “genius-slash-psycho” responsible for inventing the disco ball. In a sense, night three’s setlist is tailormade for a spinning disco ball. The band settles easily into a comfortable mid-tempo range where it’s mellow but not the least bit jarring when a girl jumps onstage and dances for a few moments. She’s a true fan – she’s wearing the shirt, knows all the words — and I’m back to believing in rock ’n’ roll the way I did when I was that 17-year-old punk.
I know rock won’t save the world and that it won’t impeach Trump. I know the unconscionable deportations of thousands of people and stripping millions of healthcare will not improve punk. But something about The Growlers’ performance makes me believe in the sanctity of this particular art form again. And yes, I know it’s corny to say a band makes you believe in rock again.
So, when night four rolls around, I pay close attention to why this band is making me feel all goopy inside. The final set is a perfect mix of night two’s mania and night three’s mellow vibes, kicked off once more with “Drinkin’ The Juice Blues” and further elevated with particularly rowdy versions of “One Million Lovers” and “Big Toe.” Someone shoots giant fog rings into the air, several of which guitarist Matt Taylor headbutts to pass the time between riffs.
And then, somewhere between “Black Memories” and the riotous finale provided by “I’ll Be Around,” I grasp it: The Growlers, a goofy band since the beginning, have mastered the art of dealing in those big, sweeping, universal realities. Their songs fixate on the spectrum of human experience: true love and crushing heartbreak, lust and longing, agony and ecstasy. What the band cares and makes music about are things that are undeniably timeless — those universal experiences that first showed up in ancient texts and will ultimately outlast the current social and political clusterfuck.
So, on day four of four, The Growlers remind me that, despite the never-ending panic fest that constitutes being alive in 2017, some things remain bigger than our fascist president and his cronies. It’s not so much an invitation to lose focus or stop fighting as it is a reminder of our shared humanity. This band is proof that rock ’n’ roll will stand, and their music drives home the reality that people will keep falling in love and getting rejected and living real, meaningful human experiences. It can be so easy to forget lately.
But right now, the only real human experience I’m having is that of complete exhaustion. Against all odds, I’ve climbed my rock ’n’ roll Everest. I’ll get back to worrying about shared humanity in the morning.