Review: The Growlers Return to South Florida After Three Years

Everyone knows Florida as a strange place, one that's churned out its share of boy bands, punk rockers, and booty-bass at varying points in its relatively brief musical history. A physically long state with what can often seem like a longer list of embarrassments to its name, Florida has carved out from its muggy, brackish and slow-moving existence a rather confused identity for itself.

Which is probably why, sometimes a lot of times, we get left behind. Especially down at its Southern tip, a Florida show for a mid-sized act offers little in the way of guarantees when compared to the mental and physical energy required getting here. Still, when a band does put in that extra effort, when the kids have scraped together their $15 cover charges and the humidity is working like a warm, tingly salve, the pay-off for a Florida show can be truly magical.

California surf-rock mainstays The Growlers are making their first Florida rounds since 2012 this week, snaking down the state from Tallahassee to Tampa and back up to Orlando and Gainesville, with last night's show at Culture Room the midpoint of the tour's five-stop Florida leg. For a Tuesday night show that reached venue capacity with a boisterous young crowd and openers Broncho setting the tone with their bouncy garage-punk vibes, the magic that could have manifested for The Growlers' big South Florida return seemed to never fully take off. Maybe it was that the venue itself was too small for the popular "beach goth" group, whose laid-back surf rock with a circus sideshow twist approached ska-jam territory at points. Tunes like the walking bass-driven "Big Toe" from Chinese Fountain and twangy, psychedelic "Naked Kids" felt like they could have been better served by an open-air festival environment, where revelers could coast in and out at their leisure with some room for conversation in between their slow-skanking. What we got was an uncomfortably packed room in front of the stage, where spilling drinks and heedless shoving made it difficult to focus long on a song, let alone reach the cool-zen levels of enjoyment called for by the music of The Growlers. 

Perhaps it was that, in a place where the oppressive heat of endless summers and constant reminders of encroaching sea levels have bred our own take on "tropical goth" and trippy garage rock (see Jacuzzi Boys, Surfer Blood, Lil Daggers), the chilled-out West Coast strain of The Growlers' surf music simply lacks some of the energy required to get us languishing Floridians to actually move our bodies.

While the show didn't fully reach its potential, it was by no means a failure. Both bands played through satisfying setlists to a crowd who knew all the words to their songs. Oklahoma's Broncho kept their stage presence minimal and respectably punk rock while still delivering on the indie-pop hooks that have gained them recent attention, as in "NC-17" and "Class Historian." Broncho frontman Ryan Lindsey was particularly interesting to watch, his oversized white t-shirt and dark stringy hair hanging over his bouncing, skinny frame as he shouted out high-pitched refrains between songs.
But it was The Growlers singer Brooks Nielsen's vocals that shone through the vape and pot smoke most of all last night, his perfectly annunciated lyrics ringing out clearly over the pleasantly distorted, jangly surf-pop tunes. The band kicked off their set with "Burden Of The Captain" and played through notable tracks like "Hiding Under The Covers," "Black Memories," "Someday," and "Wet Dreams," holding the attention of the squeezed-in crowd most of the duration, though never getting us to move beyond some gentle swaying and the occasional fringe skanking, where there was a bit more room to stretch out. 

While this double-bill would have fit much more comfortably at Revolution Live, where the pit is cozy but there's still plenty of room to roam elsewhere without sacrificing too much visibility or sound quality, it was nonetheless an impressive return for a group who's been out of the Florida loop for three years. Here's hoping more bands continue making the trek down to meet sold-out crowds who, despite rain, spilled drinks, and less than friendly service, are still down to hang and get down to some rock music on a Tuesday.