The Growlers bring their signature Beach-Goth style to Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre for two nights of Christmas-themed theatrics!
It’s the second week of January. Christmas is over, and you’ve got the credit card bill and weight gain to prove it. The excitement of New Year’s Eve has disappeared, replaced with morning-after regrets and the realization that you’re making the same bad decisions that you were in 2018. All you’ve got to look forward to now is the upcoming semester of school and, if you’re me, your impending return to Canada. The going is getting tough.
Allow me to transport you back to a more magical time. A time full of whimsy, mischief, and light debauchery. It’s December 22nd. Christmas is approaching, you’re finished with school and work, and your best friend Mariah has just arrived in San Diego despite almost having her entire vacation cancelled the day it was supposed to begin. You drive to Los Angeles for what will become one of the most special concerts of your life: it’s night two of The Growlers’ Snow Ball, the self-proclaimed “beach goth” band’s third annual holiday extravaganza at the Wiltern Theatre.
Havin’ a ball at Snow Ball III.
The Growlers are big in the Southern California surf/garage/psych rock scene, and for good reason. Formed in 2006, the band has developed a unique sound that’s immediately recognizable as distinctively their own. Despite numerous changes to their lineup, frequent label switches, and explorations of new musical styles, one constant that underpins The Growlers’ music is vocalist Brooks Nielsen’s signature raspy vocals. When they’re not making music, The Growlers also host their annual Beach Goth festival (now put on independently by the band after legal issues with the Observatory in 2016) and frequently tour the globe. During their live shows, the band is known for their wild costumes and elaborate stage designs. Even knowing this, I still wasn’t prepared for what I’d see at Snow Ball.
Leading up to the show…
Despite not being die-hard Growlers fans, Mariah and I planned to make the trip to LA for the second night of Snow Ball. When tickets went on sale, we were aghast at the roughly $60 price tag. “Who do they think they are, Beyonce?” “No openers? How egotistical!” Surprisingly (to us), the Saturday show sold out and people were reselling tickets for upwards of $100 each. Despite this, we set off for Los Angeles on December 22nd with the hope that we’d end up at the show that night. After dealing with numerous people from Craigslist who we believe were scammers, we finally secured tickets from two people we found on The Growlers’ subreddit (pro tip for finding legit resale tickets!). An hour before doors were set to open, we found ourselves in a line that extended down Wilshire Boulevard and wrapped around the corner.
The big reveal
Have you ever actually stopped in your tracks? I used to think that was just a phrase used in novels for hyperbolic effect: “She stepped through the doorway and stopped in her tracks.” However, upon having my ticket successfully scanned to enter the Wiltern, I stepped through the doorway and stopped in my tracks. I had not anticipated the level of production The Growlers had curated for this show.
Red and white striped candy canes lined either side of the path into the main lobby. Upon closer inspection, these “candy canes” were actually joints, or “doobies” as Mariah called them. She is actually a middle aged dad. “Snow Ball” was spelled out in glittery letters suspended from the ceiling. To our right was a spot to take photos with Biker Santa, straight ahead was a spot to take photos with the Grinch. Christmas carolers covering The Growlers’ songs greeted you as you descended the stairs to the lower level of the venue. Balloons, signature holiday-themed drinks, inflatable snowmen – there was so much going on we surely didn’t see it all. Decorations aside, the Wiltern is a beautiful and historic venue worthy of commendation on its own. Mariah and I immediately realized why ticket prices were so high for the Snow Ball shows and felt bad for being so ruthlessly critical of The Growlers in the weeks leading up to the show.
The DJs that kept us occupied before the main event were spinning straight bangers for an hour and a half – fun old tunes, Motown, The Smiths, nothing pretentious. Just after 8:30, they made an abrupt exit as the lights dimmed. Christmas music began playing, and a feeling of excitement and suspense was palpable throughout the sold-out crowd. As the curtains were whisked open, shrieks and gasps could be heard throughout the venue.
The stage was unveiled, revealing a life-size recreation of the hotel and vacancy sign from the Problems III music video, now dubbed the Snow Ball III Hotel. Set against a mountainous backdrop, the color of the lights illuminating the set would change throughout the night to fit the mood of each song. The musicians were wearing white pants, bow ties, and red, fur-trimmed coats. However, this wasn’t quite The Growlers yet – after dealing with some lineup changes in 2016, the “official” members (as far as I know) are only Brooks Nielsen on vocals, Matt Taylor on lead guitar, and Kyle Straka on keyboards and guitar. We’d have to wait a little longer for the full band.
Rooms 4 rent by the hour.
The never-ending setlist
The night started off with a rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, complete with a horn section and a cameo appearance by the Grinch himself. The aforementioned carolers then took the stage for a few songs, closing with “We Wish You a Merry Growlers Christmas”. Finally, we were asked to welcome to the stage “what’s left of The Growlers” as Nielsen, Taylor, and Straka joined the rest of the band (lineup changes, am I right?). They opened with “Night Ride” from 2016’s City Club amid deafening cheers.
Standout songs from the night’s setlist were plentiful and included: “One Million Lovers” and “Pet Shop Eyes” from 2013’s Hung at Heart, which everyone sang along to. “Black Memories” and “Love Test”, both from 2014’s Chinese Fountain. A cover of The Shirelles’ “Mama Said”, the perfect song for my preferred style of dancing. The 2017 single “Monotonía”, which I’d only been introduced to a few weeks before. “Navaeh”, heartfelt and acoustic, from last July’s Casual Acquaintances. The songs were really just a vehicle for Brooks’ top-notch dancing, which Mariah and I spent the night mimicking. I’m happy to say I’ve added some new moves to my arsenal (left hand over stomach, right hand in the air as if holding a microphone, rocking side to side).
The only two songs they didn’t play that I would have liked to hear were “The Daisy Chain” and “World Unglued” from City Club. Other than that, I heard every Growlers song I’ve ever wanted to hear. In one show. Talk about bang for your buck. I’m surprised I didn’t burst into spontaneous tears when “Someday” started and I finally heard my favorite Growlers song live. I’m more surprised I didn’t cry during “Lonely This Christmas”, as Brooks serenaded each and every one of us while fake snow cascaded over him.
The only snow I ever want to see is fake snow floating down onto Brooks Nielsen’s head.
Like I said, The Growlers were never my favorite band. I like their music a lot, but there was just something about them that prevented me from entering obsession territory. Since Snow Ball, everything has changed. Mariah and I listened to their cover of “Lonely This Christmas” on repeat (literally, we put it on repeat) for seven days. I’ve begun my descent into watching every video related to the band on YouTube. If your Tinder anthem is a Growlers song, I’m swiping right. The obsession grows each day. There is only The Growlers.
The Growlers closed out Snow Ball III with “Going Gets Tough” from Chinese Fountain. It’s a song of hope and happier days to come, and also a song that gave me momentary comfort during the hellish two hours on December 20th wherein I thought Mariah’s vacation to San Diego was cancelled and I was going to be Lonely This Christmas. It was a beautiful and pure send off after a dreamlike, awe-inspiring night. Post-Growlers, the opening notes of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (naturally) rang out. Mariah (not Carey) and I grabbed each other’s hands, I kicked off my shoes for some reason, and a holiday dance party and sing-a-long ensued.
All in all, The Growlers played for about two and a half hours with no breaks. The costumes, the stage design, and the decorations throughout the Wiltern were completely over the top (in the best way) and exceeded any expectations I had had for the show. Whatever your opinion of their music is, you have to respect the level of effort, planning, and heart that The Growlers put into these Snow Ball shows. And while I’m sure the band does get enjoyment out of playing them, I like to believe shows like Snow Ball exist as a way to give back to their fans at the end of the year. So thank you to The Growlers for giving me what ended up being one of my favorite memories of 2018.
Andrea Renney loves crying to The Growlers, writing for KCR, and crying about not writing for KCR anymore. She wishes everyone at San Diego State a beautiful spring semester.
Written by: Andrea Renney
Pictures by: Andrea Renney
--From all of us at KCR, we'll miss you Andrea!