Car Seat Headrest @ Johnson Controls World Sound Stage, Summerfest July 2, 2017
People often put their favorite bands on a pedestal. After listening to a musician’s albums over and over, committing the words and sounds to heart, we start to form a picture in our minds of who these musicians are in real life, regardless of the fact we don’t personally know them. We know their art and that’s enough—it’s a window to the soul, right?—and maybe we even follow their interviews. So by the time we see them in concert, we’ve formed pictures in our heads that, whether consciously or subconsciously, we expect them to live up to. Apart from being talented, we give our favorite bands are an endless list of positive attributes; they’re funny, charismatic and just as invested in a relationship with us, their fans, as we are with them.
Of course with such lofty expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo might be particularly susceptible to this kind of build-up from fans. We know him as the quintessential DIY indie rocker, the go-to reference point for musicians who used the Internet to build a name for themselves without any labels or management. No matter how reputable Toledo becomes (his fame continues to grow since signing to Matador Records in 2015), to fans he’s still the passionate young man who self-released 11 albums on Bandcamp for the pure love of music. As such, his apathetic performance at Summerfest Sunday night was a bit of a let down.
When Car Seat Headrest kicked off their set promptly at 10 p.m., the packed crowd at Johnson Control Stage thrummed with enthusiasm. The venue’s bleachers and picnic tables traded butts for feet as people crammed themselves together atop whatever surfaces they could find, eager to see the four-piece band Toledo spearheaded on stage. The band bypassed an introduction, instead diving right into their opening number, “Vincent.” “Half the time I want to go home,” Toledo sang, his lyrics elaborating on the vibe beginning to manifest from his vicinity. Though his disinterested demeanor matched his lyrics, the audience was clearly made up of true fans; they were familiar with Toledo’s self-deprecating lyrics and sang along to every word. “Don’t you know I’m not strong? / Don’t you know I’m not kind?” he pressed.
The night had more potential than it lived up to, mostly due to a lack of effort on Toledo’s part. The crowd held much more energy than the band did, as if we were trying to convince them to like us, not the other way around. Many missed opportunities to interact or respond to the audience made it feel like Toledo was just going through the motions of a show, without taking the care to do it right. A little banter between songs, for instance, or letting the crowd take the chorus on a few of their big hits, like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Fill in the Blank,” would have gone a long way. Audience members tried and failed to start a clap a few times, missing a point-man on stage to help hype the whole crowd up at once or lend some organization.
The disparity between the crowd’s eagerness and devotion to Car Seat Headrest compared to their aloofness was kind of amusing, though. We danced along to each song, jumping and spinning in circles. During verses like “Fill in the Blank”’s “It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” the contrast between our actions and the depressive nature of Toledo’s lyricism added to the humor. Fans knew the lyrics would be a bummer but that the songs would still bang (and they did), but Toledo’s absentmindedness was difficult to get past. It almost felt like they were satirizing a live performance, like they knew the formula and were completing it with as little heart as possible: enter, play, pretend to leave but come back for an encore, actually leave. “Thank you, good night,” were Toledo’s simple last words before the band’s rushed exit. Many fans lingered behind, unconvinced that was really it, only to be crestfallen when their expectations caught up with reality.