Some shows take you by surprise, no matter how prepared you are for them. I’ve been a fan of Car Seat Headrest for years now… having seen them only once, opening up for Death Cab at the Hollywood Bowl. I went to that show specifically for CSH back in the summer of 2019 and remember being irate at the older folk filling the seats around me, loudly chatting away and standing to socialize in the aisles, blocking my view almost the entire time of this gloriously underrated alt rock band in action.
I vowed right then and there that I had to see Car Seat Headrest again.
I felt even more validated that it was an unacceptable experience when Death Cab For Cutie lead singer, Ben Gibbard, announced during the headlining set that it happened to be his birthday and his present to himself was bringing in Car Seat Headrest to open, since they are his “favorite band”. I bet all those Chatty Cathys earlier felt real dumb at that moment for not paying attention to the opener.
Anyway, shortly after that, it was COVID times, so my personal CSH redemption had to wait… that is, until last Friday night. It was a much younger vibe on April 29th, 2022, as what seemed like mostly teenagers filed into San Diego’s House of Blues, filling it to capacity. I felt like one of the oldest people inside the place and I’m only 33! That said, the all-ages aspect of the night made it that much more impactful: these people were sober and absolutely losing their minds. Haven’t seen that in a while.
The first band up was indie rockers Bartees Strange. With a chick drummer and a soulful, yet stimulating lead singer, Bartees Strange instantly hooked me. It was the first time I ever saw band whip out a toy airhorn to scream into a guitar; you got to respect this band for their creativity.
As the lights dimmed and CSH players took the stage (all in unique garment styles), the audience started shouting “Will, Will, Will, Will”, overly excited for lead singer Will Toledo to appear. Let’s pause and segue back to that first performance I saw in 2019: Car Seat Headrest performed like any other grungy garage-type band, thrashing across the stage with their instruments for added emphasis. Toledo definitely wasn’t strapped to an LED-programmed gas mask with ram horns. Seeing the switch to such a demanding stage persona — in such a short amount of years — only solidifies, in my mind, just how genius this band really is. For those who have never heard of CSH, their music can be described best as ‘apathetic rock’… almost combining what happened in the emo era with 80s New Wave and/or the grunge of 90s yesteryear (depending on the song). Car Seat Headrest is a band that is indescribably next-level, eliciting powerful lyrics, unprecedented tempo arrangements and saga-long songs (some over 14 minutes!!).
And, then Will puts on a mask.
Despite having his face hidden the whole show, the audience was still in tune with Toledo’s emotions through timed expressions and patterns flashing in the eyes of the head piece. For a ‘love’ ballad (if you can call any of CSH’s songs that), the mask flashed heart eyes. For the tragic implications within the song “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, it was sad eyes to crazy eyes back to sad eyes for the reprise. And, to hear the entire place shout “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS” with crowd-surfers pumping their arms in the air… that was the most breathtaking moment I’ve experienced since pre-pandemic. Being surrounded by superfans at a sold-out show was something else, all shrieking in ecstasy every time the band took a first note of a song. It was clear they knew them all by heart.
Toledo didn’t say much in between tracks besides the fact it was “good to be here” and that this performance stood as the second for the band in three years. This tracks, considering CSH’s forced hiatus from the COVID pandemic and the fact that the Sacramento and San Francisco shows were canceled earlier in the week due to illness. Even with mask requirements to upkeep Will’s health, no one was complaining — they were just happy to be there! With a solid set of CSH bangers, the show came to an end. I’m still blown away by their amplified and all-encompassing stage presence! See this tour if you can. Trust me.
Photography by Kristy Rose