“It doesn’t look like we’re ever going to be able to leave this stage,” Will Toledo joked to an audience of enthusiastic college students, before launching into the first half of an impromptu “two-for-one encore.” The song in question, “Cute Thing,” was one of the deeper cuts off 2011’s “Twin Fantasy,” but the lack of familiarity didn’t appear to be a problem for any of the occupants of Carleton’s Cave that night. As Toledo wailed out “God, give me Dan Bejar’s voice/And John Entwistle’s stage presence,” the unrelenting energy of the crowd gave the sense that he just might have the latter down already.
I’d call Car Seat Headrest “the indie rock band to watch,” but that implies they haven’t yet reached their full artistic potential, which is a downright insult. In reality, their latest album “Teens of Denial” (their first collection of entirely new material as a full band) is easily the most innovative, well-written and forward-thinking indie rock record in recent memory, demonstrating a maturity of style that few artists manage to develop in an entire career. If their show at the Cave was any indication, they also have the live performance chops to back up the strength of their impressive discography.
Hoops, the opening act, set the tone of the concert well, delivering a set of short-but-sweet lo-fi songs, with three of the four members switching off on lead vocals throughout. Their mix of “bangers” (as the guitarist called them halfway through the show) and sonically busy dream pop songs didn’t overshadow the main event by any means, but it left enough of an impression on me that I made a mental note to check out their back catalog after the show. For a band trying to get their name out there, that’s more or less the best possible response to seeing them as an opener.
Once Car Seat Headrest took the stage, though, the atmosphere noticeably changed. After a minute or two of sound check, during which the anticipation in the front was palpable, the band went straight into “Fill in the Blank,” the first track off “Teens of Denial.” It’s one of their better-known songs, and the audience made that clear as they earnestly sang along with the chorus’s central lyric: “You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” The song’s commanding central riff filled the venue, and Toledo’s tall, lanky form exuded confidence the whole time. They could not have opened their set any better.
After that explosive entrance, the band mostly stuck to material from “Twin Fantasy” and “Teens of Denial,” along with the fan favorite “Times to Die” and an appropriately solemn cover of the first section of David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” Part of me wishes that the sound mixing could have been a little quieter, if only because many of their cleverest lyrics were drowned out by the excess noise – the 8-minute opus “Vincent” had the crowd going wild, but I could barely hear Toledo’s delivery of its best lines. I’m aware this is a common problem at rock concerts, however, so I don’t hold it against the Cave technicians.
Their performance capabilities alone would have made the show a great one, but Car Seat Headrest also injected some refreshing personality into their stage presence. Lead guitarist Ethan Ives wore a T-shirt emblazoned with elementary school CD-ROM superstar Pajama Sam, while drummer Andrew Katz kept a running commentary on the intense heat in the building. (It really was sweltering; by the end, everyone in the room was sweating so much that condensation had started to form on the ceiling.) And though Toledo is a man of fewer words than most rock singers, his stage movements — from jumping up and down to the loud power chords of “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” to a peculiar half-dance to the upbeat closer “Connect the Dots” — spoke volumes.
True, there were a few songs I wish they could have added to the setlist (“Beach Life-In-Death” and “Drugs with Friends” were the two I missed the most), and the crowd was often too raucous for its own good – I was pushed onstage multiple times, at one point accidentally knocking aside Ives’s microphone (I fixed it for him, don’t worry). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Car Seat Headrest put on a energetic, deftly played show on Friday, and it was clear that everyone in the space had immense respect for their talent as performers. In the bridge toward the end of “Fill In the Blank,” Will Toledo laments, “I get signs from the audience/Saying ‘stay the f**k down.’” This audience — and this audience member — wanted nothing of the sort.