He’s 24, but Will Toledo doesn’t look his age at all. A tall, skinny dude with black hair and big glasses, he seems like he should be in science class, not in one of the freshest indie rock groups in the world. Toledo looks like McLovin, the scene-stealing character from the 2007 teen comedy “Superbad,” and as frontman of Car Seat Headrest, he speaks to an urgency mostly felt by kids with summer jobs and curfews. And younger patrons certainly filled Toledo’s Monday night gig at the Black Cat.
A Leesburg, Va., native, Toledo began recording under the name Car Seat Headrest in 2010, and has released 12 albums in that time, including this month’s nationally acclaimed “Teens of Denial.” He tours and records with a band, but remains the lead visionary of Headrest’s recent music. In a live setting, the new songs felt combustible, seething and maladjusted. They hold all the density of Toledo’s studio work, yet onstage, the tracks feel loose enough to convey a jaunty punk ethos, bolstered by ear-splitting guitar riffs and crashing drum cymbals. Toledo mostly remained calm, even if the music swirled around him in combative surges.
Toledo opened with a subdued ballad that transitioned to “Cosmic Hero,” an expansive standout near the end of the new Car Seat Headrest album. As with other songs throughout the night, this one bubbled right to the point of spilling over, except Toledo did a masterful job of pulling back, giving listeners just the right amount of aggression. On “America (Never Been),” for instance, he shouted his disdain atop a shape-shifting beat that grew more intense as it unfolded. This performance was loud — really loud — built on a controlled rage that offered great glimpses into the band’s creative dexterity.
Toledo didn’t chat much with the crowd, instead offering one-liners that are synonymous with his conversational blend of music. “All of my friends are getting married,” he quipped on “Times to Die.” “It’s hot up here,” he deadpanned another time. His most expressive moments came when he hunched over almost out of sight, plucking strings while singing from the heart. There’s a strong connectivity in his art, an honesty that transcends genre. The band culminated with “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” the new album’s volcanic centerpiece. On what was already a grand night, Toledo concluded on petulant note, screaming, “I give up!” multiple times toward the song’s end. Much like everything else that evening, Toledo didn’t relent, saying things we’ve all felt in our most isolated moments. You don’t have to be 16 to appreciate that.