A zany, charismatic frontman is often the ringleader of an outstanding rock show. The wackier his stage antics and the more he hams it up in the spotlight, the more the crowd eats it up. But Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo is less the life of the party than he is the shy Michael Cera character hiding beneath floppy bangs and thick-framed glasses, awkwardly cradling his red solo cup in the corner.
In direct contrast to goofy, youthfully energetic opener Naked Giants, whose bassist hopped from leg to leg tirelessly like a jackrabbit and left the band’s hourlong set drenched in sweat, Toledo shuffled on stage in a tie and gray blazer, eyes cast downward. The band opened its set at at the Great American Music Hall on Monday with the eight-minute long “Vincent,” with two minutes of building instrumentals before Toledo opened his mouth to sing.
“I find it harder to speak when someone else is listening,” sang Toledo, standing still, his gaze affixed over people’s heads.
Car Seat Headrest began as a solo recording project in 2010, which Toledo named for his preference for recording vocals in the backseat of his car for privacy. Before getting signed to Matador Records in 2015 and releasing Teens of Denial in the following year, Toledo recorded 12 albums himself and posted them on Bandcamp.
As his lyrically introspective, structurally ambitious indie rock songs gained a growing cult following, years of furtively recording songs on his laptop while his college roommates were out of his residence hall room landed him here, on stage, touring the world with a full band. As a textbook introvert, it’s not a place where Toledo seems entirely comfortable yet. He’s used to connecting with fans via Tumblr ask box, after all.
But while not verbose or loose-limbed on stage, his songs spoke for themselves. The crowd stirred to life when the band launched into “Fill in the Blank,” Teens of Denial’s album opener. In a vulnerable moment before the chorus, when the fuzzy, raucous guitars cut out, Toledo’s voice cracked in self-directed rage. “You have no right to be depressed,” he yelled. His voice is unaffected and no-frills but with every inch of emotion felt palpably.
Three songs in, Car Seat Headrest opted for a cover of David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” Toledo joked that they’d already run out of original songs to play. The eerie, 10-minute song was well-suited to the band’s penchant for sprawling instrumentals, stretching into the darkness and allowing the mind to wander.
Car Seat Headrest mostly stuck to playing through Teens of Denial but risked losing the crowd to throw in a few older songs. After “America (Never Been),” a lo-fi acoustic Bandcamp relic, distracted flannel bros came together for a hearty moshing to cathartic set closer “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” If there was one song in the set everyone absolutely knew every word to, it was this epic eight-minute anthem, ebbing and flowing between thoughtful storytelling and passionate release.
The band played tribute to the late Leonard Cohen in its encore; Toledo sat down on stage while guitarist Ethan Ives took a solo stab at “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” In an unusual moment of loquacity, Toledo commented on the crowd, pointing out that he normally didn’t get the chance to take a good look at them while he was playing. But sitting still up there, a wallflower on his own stage, he could just observe for once. “I’m going to let Ethan do the entire set from now on so I can people watch,” he announced.
Car Seat Headrest’s understated live performance may have left some audience members who came out to rage at a rock gig mildly bored, but there’s something to be said for leaving ambitiously complex, introspective songs untarnished by ridiculous dance moves and corny stage banter. And Toledo stayed true to the individual nature of his songs — instead of trying to channel his best Mick Jagger, he kept it honest, allowing the crowd to soak in what he conveyed through contemplative lyrics and meandering guitars, his feet standing still but his music constantly in motion.