Car Seat Headrest had a great 2016, with their sophomore release on Matador Teens of Denial landing in the upper echelons of countless year-end best-of lists. Personally, I enjoyed that album and still return to a fair few of the songs on it, but it doesn’t feature in my top 20 from last year. That said, I must admit to being a relatively new fan of Will Toledo’s brainchild project. Like many people, I encountered him with his debut release on Matador, Teens of Style, and although Teens of Denial might not have been a year-end winner for me, I’ve always thought CSH sounded like a band that would just be great fun to see perform in the flesh. The balance of big sing-along choruses and messy passages of slacker-rock improvisation struck me as perfectly attuned to the live setting. And so, I set off to Kentish Town Forum to see Toledo and co at the headline London show they had hidden amongst their festival tour dates this summer.

I’m glad to say that, for the most part, I wasn’t wrong. However, the set began with a meandering introduction to ‘Fill in the Blank’. While I do like a thought-out lead in to a set, this didn’t really do it for me, particularly as the band ended up pausing after messing around on the introductory motif before launching into the song proper. Superfluous intro aside, I was immediately pleased to hear that Will’s voice has all the character and nonchalance it does on record in person. The opener was followed by 2015’s pensive, bittersweet ballad ‘Maud Gone’, one of my favourites from the Teens of Style record. Yet it wasn’t until ‘Destroyed by Hippie Powers’ that the set truly took flight. With its explosive start, I thought, “NOW this show is kicking off.” The sheer collective euphoria of a room of adults screaming, “Tell my mother I’m going home, I’ve been destroyed by hippie powers!” is not something I’ll soon forget. This was why I wanted to see this band!

There were other moments in the show that gave me a similar sense of jubilation, particularly ‘Drugs With Friends’ (“Druuuugs are better with, Friends are betteeeer”), and ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’, during which almost everyone in the crowd was showcasing their best narwhal impression in attempt to chant along with Toledo. In between these moments, the show followed a similar vein to ‘Fill in the Blank’ – A Teens of Denial orientated set decorated with a few offbeat excursions, such as the band’s take on James Brown’s ‘I Don’t Mind’ or the performance of new single ‘War Is Coming (If You Want It)’. These were peppered alongside pleasant renditions of tracks like ‘Vincent’ and ‘Unforgiving Girl’.

Yet there was one thing missing for me – I wasn’t convinced that Toledo’s heart was in it. At one break in the set he confessed being something along the lines of sick to death of playing these songs and eager to never play them again. This elicited a laugh from the crowd, but I couldn’t help but feel that his sentiments showed at least a handful of times during the set. Admittedly, it’s tough to say for sure whether this was just for show, given the band’s slacker lo-fi aesthetic, but there were certainly points during the Teens of Denial material – which made up the lion’s share of the set – where Toledo looked to be simply going through the motions. There are few things better than watching a band perform a fantastic set whilst simultaneously having a consistently great time on stage.

Now, this minor (and possibly misunderstood) gripe didn’t translate to me not enjoying the show. It just highlighted for me that when Car Seat Headrest go in, they really go in. I would have simply liked to see more of that. On that note, my only other disappointment was the brevity of the set. The band couldn’t have been onstage for more than 75 or 80 minutes, which is relatively short for a live band of their stature, and while they did play all my favourite tracks from the latest record it would have been great to hear them knock out a few more songs from Toledo’s extensive back catalogue. He certainly has enough of them. I suppose leaving people wanting more is never a bad thing. An intelligent strategy, even. I guess I’ll have to catch them next time around to see what they’ve got to offer then.

Setlist:

Fill in the Blank
Maud Gone
Destroyed by Hippie Powers
I Don’t Mind (James Brown cover)
Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)
Drugs With Friends
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
Vincent
War Is Coming (If You Want It)
America (Never Been)
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Connect The Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)