Do the gods of rock ‘n’ roll still exist?
(Photo: Rianna Chloe Catajan)
Do the gods of rock ‘n’ roll still exist? There was a certain mystique surrounding musicians like Bowie, Plant and Dylan, making it seem almost as if someone more than human commanded the stage, beamed in from another dimension or galaxy. Today, that blur doesn’t really exist. Rock icons tweet, star in reality shows, make cutesy videos for Pitchfork. The Nick Caves and Tom Waitses of the world are a dying breed. See them while you can.
Then there are the other guys, rock stars like Elvis Costello and Billy Joel who looked like they just clocked out at your local H&R Block and strapped on a guitar or sat down in front of a piano. Guys like Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo may look like a young Costello, but he writes songs with the same explosive fury you might expect from Modest Mouse. In front of a sold-out crowd on a dreary November night in Portland, Toledo played a 70-minute set that not only channeled the spirt of rock ‘n’ roll, but paid tribute to some of the rock gods we lost this year.
You can thank the internet for the meteoric rise of Toledo and his Car Seat Headrest project. Until recently, the 24-year-old was composing songs and releasing album after album on Bandcamp. The blogosphere eventually took notice and after signing with Matador, Toledo released his proper “debut” this year with Teens of Denial.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Toledo channeled the same rage that helped Costello transform into a rock star in front of an appreciative crowd. Flanked by a three-piece band, Toledo tore through songs from Teens of Denial, breaking to play a stirring cover of Bowie’s “Blackstar” midway through the first set. The audience – a mixed bag of high school kids, middle-aged music fans and even some metalheads – danced and shouted along to the chorus of “Fill in the Blank” and “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra).” So many newer performers put on apathetic shows in front of apathetic crowds. This is not the case at a Car Seat Headrest show.
The highlight of the evening was “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” a song Toledo jokingly claimed would be a “hit.” A deft balancing act of teen angst mixed with pop hooks, it got the folks around me dancing and singing. It’s a song that wears its influences on its sleeve, one that isn’t afraid to be earnest, cynical, maudlin and cheesy all at once. Much like the best songs of Pavement, Toledo melds a streak of humor with handstitched lo-fi rock music.
During the encore, Toledo stepped away and allowed guitarist Ethan Ives to perform a solo cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” While it was odd to see the focus shift from Toledo, especially since Car Seat Headrest is so Toledo-centric, the somber cover didn’t feel too out of place. As our rock heroes fade away, new stars will rise to take their place. Only time will tell if we will be mentioning Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest in the same breath as the Bowies, Costellos and Cohens, or if he will become little more than a footnote in the sea of rock bands that fill the planet. Based on this performance, it’s only just the beginning of a promising career.