Car Seat Headrest is no longer a moniker for the cult indie rocker born Will Toledo.
To clarify, that’s still the name Toledo is playing under, but the performance that took place on Tuesday night at the Fillmore was not a solo project by another name. Instead, Toledo has evolved from the lo-fi origins that birthed the project — Car Seat Headrest is named for his habit of recording early vocals in the backseat of his car — into a full-formed frontman.
Flanked by guitarist Ethan Ives, drummer Andrew Katz, and bassist Seth Dalby, Toledo largely eschewed his guitar in favor of fully focusing on his vocals. With a lyrical output that navigates the hazy realizations of adolescence with both wisdom and longing, it felt right to see Toledo anchoring a rock outfit instead of comprising its entirety. At one point he even lofted the ubiquitous tambourine so emblematic of many of Toledo’s predecessors, but rather than being a crutch, he wielded it like a lightning rod.
Also drawn into the fray was openers Naked Giants. When the Seattle rock trio finished their opening set, Gianni Aiello thanked the crowd before adding, “OK, we’re going to turn into Car Seat Headrest now.”
The three — Aiello, Henry LaVallee, and Grant Mullen — made good on their word, adding another layer to Toledo’s volatile arrangements and together forming a Voltron of sonically salient teenage angst. Yes, Toledo is now past those years at the ripe old age of 25, but his most recent album, Twin Fantasy (Face to Face), is in fact a complete re-recording of a 2011 release.
Re-recording an album less than a decade old is a bold gambit, but much of Toledo’s legacy is built on the bounty of tracks he first uploaded to Bandcamp before landing a deal with Matador Records in 2015. Notable for their DIY production, incredibly insightful lyrics, and unusual song structures, this music netted Toledo a rabidly dedicated fanbase.
At the Fillmore, the crowd seemed quite familiar with the evening’s headliner, mouthing the words to popular cuts like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Vincent.” Unlike some of his peers, Toledo has never restricted himself to writing radio-friendly songs, which partially explains why, in the course of nearly 90 minutes, the band played a total of 10 tracks.
It’s difficult to dissect the energy of a concert with any accuracy. External forces (namely alcohol and the ever-present allure of smartphones) mean there will always be a few people who are aggressively present at a show and others who appear fully disengaged with their surroundings.
In the case of Car Seat Headrest, the audience was notably attentive. Surveyed from the rear of the Fillmore’s floor, the atmosphere felt akin to a former age of rock shows when being in the moment was the ultimate drug. Such times have passed, but with artists like Toledo, we’ve been offered a chance to return the days when queueing in front of a Tower Records for tickets to go on-sale was a rite of passage.
There was also a palpable sense that some likely see Toledo as a maudlin prophet, able with his words to fully verbalize their long-held anxieties. During “Sober to Death,” his assessment that “nothing works for everyone — good stories are bad lives” is a fitting example of the way Toledo simultaneously channels dread and humor with an authoritative flourish, as though he has been offered an answer sheet to all of the questions that plagued us in high school.
This is a sentiment fans may hold, but there’s no reason to think Toledo actually views himself this way. In interviews and through social media posts, he’s in fact often excessively self-deprecating about his own talents and reach. He may be humble, or he may simply be astute enough to know that no good can come from a sense of self curated by one’s fanbase.
If Toledo has learned this lesson, it’s yet another marker that his transformation from bedroom whisperer to bonafide rockstar is nearly complete.