Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s breakthrough album from last year, was a minor miracle. It was built on music that had plenty of retro quotations — literally, in the moments where Will Toledo slid into the lyrics from old songs — and lyrics that were often tangled and bookish but also raw and personal. It was one of the most exciting rock albums by a young artist in recent memory, landing on our list of 2016’s best releases. Personally, it’s one of my favorite releases to have come out this decade. But somehow, I kept missing Car Seat Headrest shows, and yesterday’s afternoon set at Lollapalooza was my first chance to catch them.
When people talk about Car Seat Headrest shows, there’s a near-reverence already. They talk about the strength of the band live, and about how Toledo’s rise has also garnered a fanbase that is very, very fervent — the types to cram up in the front rows and mosh and jump around and sing along to every single lyric with an intensity like it’s the last show they’re ever going to see. And just the way the band comes onstage feels more dramatic than your typical show. It starts with only the drummer onstage keeping a steady beat underneath weird looped vocals, and then each member comes onstage individually and picks up their instruments, until all four of them are finally there and the tension of the vocal loop intro breaks into a crazy, cacophonous start to “Vincent.” If they were more over-the-top about it, it would be grating. But the cool confidence of it yielded something that’s rare in 2017: a young rock band that believes this stuff can still be larger than life.
Within an hour, the band touched on a bunch of music — including, surprisingly, a cover of James Brown’s “I Don’t Mind” — but was anchored by highlights from Teens Of Denial. Right after charging through “Vincent” at the beginning of the show, they played a slightly tweaked, chugging version of “Fill In The Blank.” Through most of this, the band played as loud and raw as their live reputation suggests, but it sometimes drowned out the more deadpan moments of Toledo’s melodies, particularly in the heavy chorus of “Destroyed By Hippie Powers.” But there were other moments where everything sounded perfect, like in the climactic choruses of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” during which fans up front were also tossing around a killer whale balloon.
They also played a new song, “War Is Coming (If You Want It)” — another tongue-in-cheek classic rock nod from Toledo — that came out last week in one form and will get a more official release later this month. They brought out a saxophonist for a solo on this one, so we’ll see if the finished version has a big sax showcase still. (Though Toledo, in his penchant for changing songs up live, did say something about how that version would sound nothing like the one they played.) Mostly, it’s a midtempo burn until it hits a crescendo as everyone in the band sings the title in unison.
Though there are plenty of us who still love Teens Of Denial, sometimes it seems like there might be a slight Car Seat Headrest backlash brewing. Who knows when that album’s successor will show up or what it’ll mean for the band’s stature, but seeing them at Lollapalooza was halfway-revelatory, a clear rebuttal to those who think this band was all inflated hype. At a 3PM set under a harsh sun, they were able to fill way more of a main stage field than you’d expect from a rock band of their standing. And there was no sense that people just happened to walk by and see them accidentally — people were invested, pouring themselves into the lyrics, moving to all of the twists and turns in those Teens Of Denial songs. On the next album, Car Seat Headrest could be playing much bigger rooms. Seeing them now only underlines the fact that we’re watching someone’s rapid ascension.