A Thursday night at Velvet Jones in downtown Santa Barbara already has the potential to lean towards absurdity. With sinister graphic art and an unimaginably cramped dance floor (due in large part to the venue’s strict separation of the 21 and over crowd and their jealous juniors), the venue is reminiscent of hole-in-the-wall garage rock havens that, despite their obvious grievances, are disgustingly delightful. Florida-based indie rockers Surfer Blood did not hesitate to capitalize on the bizarre environment when they stepped on to Velvet Jones’ stage on Feb. 23.
The show was opened by Portland’s Wild Ones, whose front-woman Danielle Sullivan charmed the crowd with fairly generic but pleasant ethereal vocals and a doll-like stage presence. She and the all-male backing band suggested a stray from surf pop and a new experimentation with catchy, throbbing bass lines and synth melodies.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, Surfer Blood has not suffered the pangs of the slow and unrewarding beginnings that plague most indie pop bands. Rather, the group hit the ground running in 2009 when their debut single, “Swim,” gained vast popularity and even a good review by the indie music blog staple Pitchfork. For fear of losing momentum, they quickly released their first album, Astro Coast, in 2010.
As may be evident in the band’s name as well as many of their song titles, the group sticks mainly to pop-punkish surfing tunes. As mundane as that sounds, it is actually the group’s unabashed adherence towards the genre that has created their surprising popularity. Usually resisting (thankfully) the average pop band’s newfound love of surreal synth loops, the band’s organic sound is accessible and appealing, emitting the feel of youthful energy.
The band certainly reflected such energy and confidence on Thursday night.
“We thought we were ready but our bass player needs to ‘pee pee,’” were the first words out of guitarist Thomas Fekete’s mouth, foreshadowing the show’s mood. Opening the set with “Floating Vibes,” the first track off Astro Coast, a stark dichotomy between the band’s music and their somewhat austere, though funny, stage personae became evident. It was not until, during an ambitious guitar solo, front man John Paul Pitts finally let forth a self-satisfied grin that the audience realized the members of the band were also having fun.
But really, they had a lot of fun. Pitts’ tendency to mock both the audience and himself with innocently earnest questions such as, “So how do you guys like living in California?” and “Are you having the time of your life?” became just another natural aspect of the show’s progression, as he slowly developed a rather adorable rapport with the audience, especially overly-exuberant high-schoolers who regularly crowd-surfed during the band’s faster tunes.
The set’s fourth song, which Pitts lovingly titled, “Blair Witch … Blair Fucking Witch,” will appear on their newest album and coincided with the band’s past work, featuring rockfish guitar jams and Pitts’ return to a classic and clear boyish voice, reminiscent of the Wedding Present or even the Kaiser Chiefs. The front man did, however, retain the element of surprise by deep-throating the mic after finishing the song. After that, the band let loose and the frenzied fun truly began.
From there on the band stuck to their newer songs, including “Casper” and “Bird for You,” the latter of which even had a country-esque swing to it. During the second half of the set, Pitts repeatedly called non band-members onto the stage to play guitar while he gallivanted through the audience, interacting, dancing and ultimately returning to the stage to kiss his unknown comrades in gratitude for taking over the “trivial” aspect of the music while he focused on the actual show.
“We’re not leaving,” screeched an audience member after Surfer Blood left the stage and the crowd chanted for the group’s return. The boys, of course, obliged with a triple encore, featuring a short instrumental and an anticipated stage dive from Pitts, who looked like a character from a Joseph Heller novel with his pixie-like Toms shoes and propensity to flail himself about the stage in the manner of a military sergeant.
The band left the stage to a cheering audience who, it seemed, thought these four guys from Florida were the coolest thing to ever grace Velvet Jones’ stage. And I doubt the band would argue — Surfer Blood’s music is pretty damn “normal,” but we don’t see a need to change it. The band itself is pretty damn weird and they aren’t making apologies for that, either.