In the 2001 film Legally Blonde, future lawyer Elle Woods makes it her goal to help nail technician Paulette snag her dream guy. Albeit quirky, Paulette is cute and charming. She lacks the confidence that she needs to seduce the elusive UPS delivery man.
“You have all the equipment,” explains Elle.”You just need to read the manual.”
Car Seat Headrest‘s performance Sunday night at Summerfest had a lot in common with Jennifer Coolidge’s Paulette Bonafonté. The stage name of singer/songwriter Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest performed an inconsistent set full of glorious highs and disaffecting lows, showcasing their raw musical talent accompanied by a lack of coherence and confidence.
A member of Generation Bandcamp, Toledo has been making music long before he began headlining festivals. He released a total of 12 albums on the streaming site before striking a deal with Matador Records in 2015. He quickly became a music press darling after the release of his tenth album, Teens Of Denial.
A sizable crowd came out to see Toledo and his backing band at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage. The ideal stage for Car Seat Headrest, it lacks the space for dancing but is small enough to foster a sense of intimacy between musician and fan. The majority of attendees came of age when the stage was home to a variety of world music instead of 88.9 Radio Milwaukee’s roster of hype machine artists. More people in the crowd were holding sodas and lemonades than beers and cocktails, and many of Toledo’s younger fans were at the show with their parents.
The set began with “Vincent,” followed by “Fill In The Blank.” Arguably Toledo’s biggest hit, the latter track prepared the audience for the rest of the show. “You have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” wailed Toledo in his signature baritone. The young crowd screamed their hearts out with him, and a heavy air of teen angst began to infiltrate the Summerfest grounds.
Toledo’s stage presence was quite uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t it be? He’s barely older than the median age of a crowd member. His pale face was hidden behind a pair of thick glasses and a head of dark hair that desperately needed a trim. His eyes were barely visible, but that didn’t really matter. He barely looked up at the crowd during the performance. His presence was uninviting, but thoroughly genuine. He and his bandmates didn’t come off like rock stars in the slightest, instead possessing that Parquet Courts-esque, effortlessly cool nerd thing with admirable authenticity.
“Destroyed By Hippie Powers” was one of the most engaging performances of the set. In spite of his obvious discomfort, Toledo can fucking shred. At only 24, he’s still fairly new to performing with a backing band. He began making music in the solitude of his car (hence the name Car Seat Headrest), and has only had the help of bandmates since his most recent release. Toledo’s music remains as earnest and innocent as his earliest recordings, and his voice has a certain tenderness to it that reveals his enduring sensitivity. Car Seat Headrest is classified as indie rock, but the band lacks the pretentiousness that their Pitchfork-hyped contemporaries tend to have.
“Let’s see if you recognize this one,” said Toledo with a wry smile before diving into a slick cover of James Brown’s “I Don’t Mind.” The band quickly transitioned into “Unforgiving Girl,” the most upbeat song of the night. It had the crowd dancing, singing, and hanging onto Toledo’s every word. If only every performance in the set could have been as engaging.
The band played more than a few songs that were unnecessarily long. Pulling off a seven-minute song, a la Sabbath or Zeppelin, requires finesse that Car Seat Headrest doesn’t yet have, and it was quite easy to become disinterested in the show while Toledo and his bandmates played the same riff over and over and over. The band’s encore followed this trend and was, again, unpleasantly drawn out. Toledo and his bandmates are undeniably talented musicians, but their jam sessions were not greatly appreciated by the crowd of teenagers with short attention spans.
Awkward yet endearing, uncomfortable yet ambitious, Will Toledo is like a superhero who just recently discovered his powers. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be on stage; he just doesn’t seem to know how to properly use his unique abilities. Hopefully something comes along that will teach him how to bend and snap, giving him the ability to fully seduce a vigorous audience and shine bright like the rock star he was meant to be.