By COLIN ALDRIDGE
There are a select few musicians that seem to fundamentally understand music, who know precisely when to change chords, when to speed up or slow down the tempo and exactly when (if ever) to pause. Our dearly departed Aretha Franklin was one of them, as is Paul McCartney, Prince and Jack White. Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest is also one of these artists, and he ranks among them in greatness. I saw the band live this Sunday at Newport Music Hall, and their performance matches their studio output in its ability to transcend the listener to another plane.
Car Seat Headrest is touring their latest album, “Twin Fantasy,” which was released in February and received a criminally small amount of attention. This has been infuriating; one of the great rock journalistic failings of the century. “Twin Fantasy” is, in the opinion of this writer, the best album of the decade, a work of technical genius, a musical experience. It ranks among the best records of all time, a peer of “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s,” yet it has been largely ignored.
It hasn’t been ignored by the people who were standing in line at Newport at 6 p.m. (an hour before doors opened) in the rain. Girls in hoodies digging their hands in their pockets and boys running their hands through soaking wet hair. Most of these kids are just that– kids in their early 20s—though there is the occasional middle-aged man with a Neil Young “Rust Never Sleeps” t-shirt. Ahead of me in line was a couple. The girl had short curly hair and was about four inches taller than the boy, whose long purple hair was returning to its natural brunette. Behind me was a group of pretentious college students cracking jokes at every passerby and engaging in typical college banter. One of them, a tiny hipster girl with dark hair, not so subtly stood just under my umbrella as we quietly judged each other. The highlight of their conversation:
Girl 1: When did women start to matter?
Girl 2: Soon, I hope.
I love it. This is a Car Seat Headrest crowd. The hipster college students, the art kids, the nerds, the losers, the freaks, the posers, the punks, the partiers, the pretty girls who are used to being looked at but with CSH feel seen, the Kerouac-esq jocks who drink heavily and are full of anger, seen as a meathead, but owns a poet’s heart and dads who are by no means old, but have seen the bands that influenced CSH. In other words, the entire fucking Breakfast Club was at this show, and I love them. I was one of them.
When we got inside, the room was misty and blue lights painted everything. I was one of those who was attending the show with my dad, who I got into the band when “Teens of Denial” came out in 2016. There were a significant number of kids with their dads; fathers with sons, fathers with daughters. CSH bridges generation gaps. For kids, it’s proof of the band’s brilliance. For dads, their music is authentic, drawn from the same creative pool as the bands that have stood the test of time and it’s music the kids love that they understand. I should note here that I don’t identify with the kids. In fact, I tend to side with the dads. I don’t know what’s hip. But I do know that CSH is the real deal.
The opening band, Naked Giants, started off strong. Within the first 30 seconds of the first song, something went flying up and across the stage. It was a chunk of cymbal the drummer shattered. Beyond this, however, they fell into extended jams, the effect of which didn’t reach beyond the stage. Their last song seemed like a personal challenge: How many times can we end the song and then start it back up again? And as a former bass player, I just don’t think playing the bass behind your back is as cool as doing the same with a guitar. It just doesn’t have the same effect. Sorry, man. Still, they rocked the house and raised the energy of the crowd. When they were done, we were ready for the main event.
Blue light shined straight ahead vertically over the crowd as Car Seat Headrest took their spots. They began playing silhouetted by the lights. You could see the bright blue outline of Toledo’s head, the head which all this sprang from. For an hour, I was somewhere else. Toledo commanded the stage with erratic dance moves immediately followed by clenched fists and stiff posture at the microphone as he sang. He played no instrument, and it became clear why–his dance moves doubled as the conductor’s baton. The band was one body moving together, and Toledo was the head and the heart. It was a thing of beauty.
They played many of their hits, including “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “Bodys” and “Sober to Death,” as well as a number of pre-label songs. They closed with an amazing extended version of “Teens of Style’s” “Something Soon,” and their encore was the incredible 13-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” played exactly as it is on the album. When they left the stage for good, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like they were just getting started.
One day, CSH will play in stadiums, and their sets will be three-and-a-half hours, and they will still feel short. When I was conscious enough for thought, I realized that these guys on stage are themselves, uncool. There was not a single cool person in that room. We were all of us the same, connected to something higher, singing along to the same words, feeling understood. They put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen or ever been a part of.