When Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest came on stage at Royale Thursday night (September 13) — his shaggy hair falling over his face, his thick-rimmed glasses perpetually sliding down his nose — he started in the corner, hiding behind some keyboards. In fact, it would have been hard for Toledo to make it any clearer that he wasn’t quite ready to come out of his shell: Dressed in all black, starting with a song that’s not his (Lou Reed’s “Waves of Fear”), and keeping the openers, Naked Giants, onstage.
But in only 11 songs, Toledo slowly unraveled, sharing with the audience candor, intimacy, and emotional tension.
To be expected, Car Seat Headrest pulled heavily from 2016’s Teens of Denial and their latest album, Twin Fantasy. After the Lou Reed cover, the band launched into “Bodys” and “Fill in the Blank;” what’s more liberating than shouting “You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it” with a head-banging collegiate crowd?
Three songs in and after no break between songs, Toledo took a step back and quietly announced his mic was “fucked up.” Quick banter between bandmates (the supergroup that now consisted of Naked Giants) provided some insight into their leader that night: Will Toledo, the self-deprecating king of fundamental shyness and sarcasm, resembling a comic book character and someone we’ve all met before. “We wrote our setlist on paper plates tonight,” he announce glumly to applause and laughs.
The magic in Toledo’s performance lies in his rawness that surfaces as groggily singing something heartbreaking. When his voice breaks, it’s a reminder that he’s not a teenage kid, although the music can sometimes feel that way. In songs like “Joe Gets Kicked Out,” the audience feels like they’re intruding, like we’ve pushed open the door to a teenage boy’s bedroom and discovered him dancing on his own.
The band launched into “Sober to Death” next, Toledo standing center-stage and toying with the audience’s momentum. The song brings a heaviness into the room—most of the band’s music deals with mental illness and isolation and angst—but this song fills the space differently, in a dark comedy sort of way. Partway through the song, guitarist Ethan Ives takes over the vocals by segueing into Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” A song of equal nihilism and despair, the inclusion of this halfway through their own song screams intentionality. And Toledo has proved he’s nothing if not thoughtful.
By the time the band returns to the second half of “Sober to Death,” Toledo has taken to flailing around his carved-out space on the stage, still retaining his vocal tightness. Embracing his deadpan humor, he introduces the next song with rare banter: “I don’t necessarily like America, but it exists and I live in it and I have to acknowledge it. And most of you must, too.”
The set finishes with a mashup of their “Something Soon” and Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green.” The crowd up front has descended into a full-on mosh pit and they hungrily send up a sheet of paper (sloppily signed by a handful of audience members) that says “Beach Life-in-Death.”
The band returns on stage for the encore, Toledo grinning shyly as he grabs the microphone and says, “we’re only playing this song because someone wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to us.” Toledo revives the momentum and then some, arms spinning out as he breaks for a breath between verses, the audience swallowing whole everything he gives them.
When the band finally leaves, the audience stands stuporous. Faces that had once been tense now look relieved, like they had just been to a therapy session; Toledo’s performance seemed cathartic not only for himself, but for the entire crowd. The next time Car Seat Headrest return to Boston, they’ll play a Valentine’s Day show at Royale — but if Toledo’s intensity and catharsis charmed a room in only 11 songs, imagine the power he’ll inevitably bring to a larger venue full of fans looking to exit their own shell alongside him.