Submitted by guest contributor Sophia Naide
To be frank, at a Car Seat Headrest concert, I expected an audience of sad boys. I expected to see a lot of pale twentysomething men, dressed in dark denim and plastic-framed glasses, standing very still and bobbing their heads. The first indication my assumption was wrong was when I squeezed into the front row, already crowded with teenagers. They enthused about their hopes for the setlist, paid attention to the opening bands, took photographs of every moment. They were wonderfully happy to be there.
These teens drew out a feeling in me, which I had not expected to feel at this concert: joy. A brash, visceral delight in living, a sense that reverberated among the concertgoers. The night did not feel distant and lonesome, as my nights with Car Seat Headrest’s music normally do. This night felt communal, vibrant, hungry. This crowd came ready to revel together.
I usually listen to Car Seat Headrest alone and at times when everyone around me feels distant — physically, emotionally or both. Oftentimes, it’s at night. I prop my window open to breathe in the thick, fragrant air of Virginia’s summer evenings and allow Car Seat Headrest’s indie rock to spill out onto the street. I’m not listening for lyrics but rather for the feeling of the sounds, for music that lives more in the body than in the brain.
So on this June night, crowding into the shadowy cool of the Jefferson Theater for a packed concert offered not only a radically different environment in which to experience the band’s music but also a fresh perspective on it.
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” a single from last year’s Teens of Denial and likely one of Car Seat Headrest’s best-known songs, inspired a circle pit during its unfurling choruses. The knot of high schoolers next to me held each other by the shoulders and danced in a hug. During “Maud Gone,” as frontman Will Toledo sang about the full moon and a chunky bass line thudded reassuringly beneath lacing guitars, I turned around to scan the crowd out of curiosity. I saw a couple kissing each other. I saw a kid who couldn’t have been older than 14, swaying her arms mystically with the melody. I saw a white-haired man slam into the pit. I saw a lot of people having a lot of fun.
I am sometimes embarrassed to play Car Seat Headrest songs in the car with my family, given the sentimental, self-involved earnestness of lines like “I have a right to be depressed / I’ve given every inch I have to fight it.” But at this show, there was no shame or inhibition. There was a fucking circle pit and an exuberant ocean of people who identified with this music, who eagerly accepted its invitation to fall apart and fall together.
The band played for a little over an hour and kept moving tidily along, eschewing banter for quick transitions between songs. But whether that minimalism was the result of a conscious choice or simply a disinterest in doing anything beyond playing the setlist, it was perfect. The straightforward set allowed us as the audience to define the night by our energy, by our joy at connecting with the music and with each other. The concert was what any great concert should be—a collaboration between artist and audience, inspired by an effable energy that transcended the sum of the show’s parts.
As the band offered faithful renditions of songs that sprawled on for seven to 10 minutes, the grand Jefferson Theater filled with a noise that submerged the room. During repeating choruses and spiraling instrumental sections, I closed my eyes to absorb myself in the fullness of the sound. A smile peeled across my face and I was happy. Unexpectedly so.
Toledo’s lyrics deal with an existential dread of malaise and shame. But on this night, concertgoers came to celebrate and connect to an experience. I now understand that while Car Seat Headrest’s music may be rooted in sadness, the sadness is a journey to go on, not a place to dwell in. It’s a sadness that often arrives at joy’s doorstep.
I caught a faint smile flash across Toledo’s face as he took in the energy of the audience, once during a moment when our singing overpowered his and another when he strummed the opening chords of a familiar song and the crowd shrieked in delight. His smile might have only been a trick of the light, or I might have been reading happiness into his blank face. Yet how he felt didn’t really matter. Not on this night. Not in the face of our insistent joy.
Sophia Naide is a writer and poet from Virginia. She likes nature, activism and gigs that start on time. Find her on Twitter.
Header photo by Revolution Blues