For all his anti rock star characteristics — a cherubic face with big Harry Potter glasses and a completely unassuming demeanor — Will Toledo certainly knows how to make a celebrity entrance.
Toledo — the creative force behind the indie rock band Car Seat Headrest — let the excitement build to feverish levels on Monday night before taking the stage at Great American Music Hall. Waiting until the three other members of his group had whipped the crowd into a frenzy by playing the opening chords of “Vincent,” Toledo finally appeared onstage and picked up his guitar. That song, off Toledo’s latest release, Teens of Denial, is a staccato, spiky guitar number that recalls Television’s “Marquee Moon.” And when Toledo drawled the opening line, “Half the time/ I want to go home,” the raucous crowd joined in with rapturous abandon.
At just 24 years old, Toledo already has more than a dozen “albums” under his belt, released for free on the music sharing website Bandcamp. His preternatural songwriting ability and willingness to actively share with his fans has earned him a devoted following. Despite Car Seat Headrest boasting a sound that’s indebted to indie rock bands from the ’90s (think Built to Spill, Pavement, Guided By Voices), his crowd on Monday night was unmistakably millennial and unabashedly fervent in their support.
The loudest reactions came in response to songs from Teens of Denial, with “Fill in the Blank,” “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An),” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” eliciting mass sing-alongs. Toledo’s greatest strength is belting out melodious choruses that just barely rise above the din of the guitars, creating a cacophonous, enveloping atmosphere that’s buoyed by his fans’ vocal contributions.
After going forth as a one-man act for years, Toledo has formed a solid touring band, and he’s putting ever more faith in their abilities. He ceded lead guitar duties to Ethan Ives on several songs, and for a band that’s really only been together for about a year, Car Seat Headrest sounds remarkably taut. Toledo earned his stripes as a bedroom auteur — recording lo-fi songs in whispered tones — but every song on Monday night completely filled the ballroom at Great American Music Hall, a display of a formidable act at its peak.
Car Seat Headrest brought their over-the-top theatrics to tunes that normally hover below peak volume levels, including a booming cover of David Bowie’s haunting “Black Star.” By the time the band closed its set with “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” I worried just a bit that I’d be going to sleep that night with an incessant ringing in my ears (there, I just admitted that I’m fucking old.)
The one hushed moment of the performance came during the band’s encore, when Ives serenaded a sweet and faithful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” Toledo, who’s been outspoken about his love for the legendary musician, seemed to take pleasure in sitting back and watching his bandmate assume lead vocal duties for that placid moment.
After that moving tribute to the late singer-songwriter, Toledo and company kicked it back into gear for the closing number, “Cosmic Hero,” off Teens of Denial. Midway through the song, the band briefly slipped into a cover of “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground. It was a fitting sendoff for a truly cathartic night.
Many of Toledo’s followers must be wondering where they stand in a country that just elected a despotic, bigoted megalomaniac. Music is a place of solace for so many confused, young kids. That couldn’t have been more evident on Monday night at Great American Music Hall.
“Fill in the Blank”
“Black Star” (David Bowie cover)
“Destroyed by Hippie Powers”
“Sober to Death”
“Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”
“America (Never Been)”
“Drunk Driver/Killer Whales”
“Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” (Leonard Cohen cover)
“Cosmic Hero/Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground cover)