car seat headrest - the riviera

Chicago, IL,  7 September 2018

CSH.jpg

Like many others, Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 album Teens of Denial was for me a revelation. Confession after confession told so candidly, it was hard to tell what was real and what was artistic license. After hearing it, I dipped my toe in some of their more lo-fi earlier releases—with over ten releases predating Teens of Denial, it takes a lot to do more than simply dip one’s toe—enough to know I prefer the newer sound founder/frontman Will Toledo has found. Vocally, he’s traded in a distant Clap Your Hands Say Yeah yelp for low-key crooning in a Beck-gone-shoegaze style. The latest release, a re-recording of his 2011 album Twin Fantasy, came out earlier this year and also has some unforgettable moments of neurotic glory. I was excited to see them live for the first time, though I was bummed the show was changed from The Vic Theatre to The Riviera, a substantially larger venue, due to demand.

The concert began with guitarist Grant Mullen walking onstage first, which made for a confusing start. He had been in the opening band Naked Giants, a young Seattle trio whose debut record came out in March, so seeing him appear again caused some members of the audience—or perhaps just me—to wonder if the opener was being asked to vamp and fill more time. (There had been a few sound and light indications that the band could appear at any moment, yet the audience just waited longer.) But this was not the case. Indeed, in time all three members of Naked Giants would reappear to serve double-duty for the evening.

The confusion didn’t last long. A second figure appeared in the hazy blue light. “I love you, Will!” shouted the freshman-looking kid with braces to my right. The object of the teen’s affection had just walked on stage, nothing but the silhouette of the songwriter’s mane and glasses while he stood silently at a stage left keyboard. It would be the only time Toledo would play a melodic instrument during the set. His fingers repeated a short phrase while Mullen added some spacy musical texture on his guitar.

The other members of the seven-member live band crept onstage, allowing the bass to add some rhythm to the hypnotic swirl of sound. The drums came in and the song, a cover of Lou Reed’s “Waves of Fear,” came into focus just in time for Toledo to leave the Korg and shuffle over to his off-center microphone. The lights changed, the music got louder and the audience began cheering and didn’t stop for the next ninety-ish minutes.

Throughout, the lights were the only spectacle, something rarely seen today in the age of digitally-enhanced stage presence. This put the focus entirely on the band members. Switching between third guitar and keys was Gianni Aiello, who had played bass for Naked Giants, but was much less animated than he was in his own band--it wasn’t until more than halfway through the set that he cracked a smile. On auxiliary percussion was Henry LaVallee, Naked Giants’ drummer, who at one point went rogue with his cowbell, beating the thing within an inch of its life at the edge of the stage. But naturally, most of the focus was on frontman Will Toledo.

He remains the sole songwriter for the group, which has four official members. That being said, Toledo makes for an awkward frontman. Dressed like a moody McLovin and with stilted dance moves like Garth Algar at a revival, I was left wondering if this was his first tour where he didn’t don a guitar. His arms seemed unsure what to do for much of the show. But the audience hung onto every word, often singing along loudly through entire songs. And the crowd wasn’t just young’uns: my other neighbors included some middle-aged folks and a late-twenties tool who kept throwing up devil horns for no clear reason.

Despite not knowing their extensive back catalogue, I recognized most of the tunes in the set, which were mostly from the past two releases. Most of the songs hovered around six minutes in length, amounting to a relatively short list of songs, making the evening go by quickly. Highlights for me were “Bodys” and “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem),” both of which have refrains that united everyone in rocking out. After a short break offstage, CSH returned to the stage with little more than fifteen minutes left before the 10 pm curfew, and launched into the thirteen minute “Beach Life-in-Death.” It felt as if the band would have gladly played a longer set had the venue not had a curfew. The crowd, myself included, certainly wanted more.

SETLIST:

Waves of Fear (Lou Reed cover)
Bodys
Fill in the Blank
(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem)
Cute Thing
Sober to Death/Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
America (Never Been)
Destroyed by Hippie Powers
Something Soon
Beach Life-In-Death (Encore)