“I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice, my pain is my own,” Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest sings bluntly during the chorus from one of the highlights from Teens of Denial, his 2016 release. It’s a strange assertion from someone so renowned for self-releasing confessional and vulnerable material — which he did on Bandcamp for years leading up to the band’s much-fanfared signing to Matador Records — someone who has turned the pain and struggle in his life into an art form.
Yet Toledo, as bandleader, and the now four-piece band did their very best to toe that line between naked expression and unwavering composure at their sold-out show at the Cedar Cultural Center Wednesday night, drawing the impassioned concertgoers in with their trademark blend of endlessly-relatable lyrics to sing along with — combined with an ample amount of guitar shredding.
Toledo’s journey from recording songs in his car (hence the band’s moniker) about his freezing fingers and overwhelming anxiety to playing sold-out shows across the country and being crowned as indie rock’s newest wunderkind has already been mythologized repeatedly, so it was no surprise to see a certain fervor amongst the concertgoers who made the pilgrimage to Cedar-Riverside on a weekday night.
Though most of the crowd wore similar apparel (a strict uniform of flannel and denim), the crowd ranged from stylish teenagers with parental escorts to clusters of grown adults doing their best to remain hip in the presence of a much younger crowd.
Lucy Dacus opened the show with her band playing material off her 2016 release, No Burden. Dacus, of Richmond, VA, has a deep, smoky voice like a clarinet that gives off the impression that she’s a lounge singer moonlighting in a rock band. The dense imagery evoked by her lyrical observations — “She had the body of a beauty queen, put on a pedestal for good hygiene” — helped showcase her similarity to her tourmate, and the crowd gave her performance the respect and consideration it deserved.
Her conventional indie sound has some occasional curveballs thrown in for differentiation, including organ-esque sounds coaxed from guitars, buildups of blistering sound, and quiet moments where she let her voice shine.
Only ten minutes after Dacus left the stage, Toledo, bassist Seth Dalby, guitarist Ethan Ives, and drummer Andrew Katz graced the stage, with Toledo performing a little acoustic rendition of a Leonard Cohen song as an introduction to the night, before ripping right into Denial single “Fill in the Blank.” Toledo, well-dressed in a grey suit, stood somberly before the crowd. He appeared reminiscent of a Stop-Making-Sense-era David Byrne, all loose limbs and serious demeanor.
Though Car Seat Headrest are famous for having a bedroom solo-project origin, the outfit truly function best as a band — Toledo obviously seems to enjoy sharing the stage with the talented musicians he’s welcomed into his world.
Playing 12 songs over the course of 105-minute set, the average length of each song approached nine minutes long. Car Seat Headrest are one of the few bands currently with enough combined raw talent and sheer momentum to captivate audiences for the extended jams of many of their album cuts. The show-stopping “Vincent” filled the room with a contagious electricity during its climax, Ives’s guitar shredding and synchronized shows of rhythm punctuating Toledo’s rallying cry of, “Half the time I want to go home!”
With an encore that included a version of career highlight “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” that began with Toledo alone and dimly lit onstage playing piano, with his bandmates only joining at the song’s emotional peak, alongside a rendition of “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)” that weaved in the chorus of the Van Morrison/Them song “Gloria,” also notably performed by Patti Smith. This small tribute to his idols — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” could have been a Car Seat Headrest lyric in a parallel universe — helped complete the portrait of where Toledo finds himself now.
He’s staring straight at success’s snarling face, as generations of artists have before him, and choosing to remain vulnerable for art’s sake. It’s a bold move, but Toledo and company are just getting started, and they’ve got the talent to go the distance. They’re more than “diary rock,” but a ensemble that is able to take the melancholy of Toledo’s everyday existence and give it a rollicking soundtrack. They’re making art angsty again.
Bird on a Wire [Leonard Cohen Cover]
Fill in the Blank
Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)
America (Never Been)
Sober to Death
1937 State Park
Destroyed by Hippie Powers
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)
Writer Hannah Marie Hron is a senior at Hamline University with a passion for live review who is hoping to continue in the music journalism field after she graduates. Photographer Bridget Bennett is a student at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities.
Car Seat Headrest