Will Toledo is Car Seat Headrest. Will Toledo is a staggeringly prolific songwriter, a brutally confessional lyricist, an exemplary champion of DIY ethics even as his humble indie rock project has signed with Matador Records and achieved previously unfathomable levels of success.
But Will Toledo is not a rockstar.
Reality smacked hard during the Seattle-by-way-of-Virginia quartet’s 2 p.m. set at the Honda Stage on Saturday, where they played to a noticeably smaller and more listless crowd than the one Mutemath dominated at the same time and place on Friday. There’s no questioning Toledo’s songwriting chops — dude’s released 10 studio albums and a handful of EPs since 2010 — but the 25-year-old frontman could not be bothered to show any vital signs onstage beyond pushing his blocky shades up his nose after every song.
The singer and guitarist pays obvious deference in both his languid posturing and slurred vocals to reigning garage rock revivalists the Strokes, but as the New York indie rockers proved themselves at this festival two years ago, even Julian Casablancas struggles to do a convincing Julian Casablancas onstage — and that was with the momentum of a headlining set on their side. Toledo’s heart was in the right place, but he hasn’t earned the right to slack off before a sleepy afternoon crowd yet.
Thankfully, his bandmates knelt before a different altar, one of good-natured crowd banter and rock star histrionics. Lead guitarist Ethan Ives slashed through the muddy tumult with tuneful, trebly licks, looking more Woodstock than ACL with his voluminous curls, tucked-in brown t-shirt and prominent smiley face belt buckle. Ives took lead vocals for a powerful cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” his guitar work oozing subtle sensuality and his vocals hinting at a deep well of longing bubbling beneath the surface.
Toledo, meanwhile, added airy falsetto backing vocals, proving his strongest suit was playing second fiddle to his bandmates.
Still, there’s no denying the great strides Car Seat Headrest have made in the past year, and any sort of inclusion on Austin’s biggest conventional music festival is a huge win for them. Drummer Andrew Katz acknowledged as much: “The last time we played Austin was South by Southwest, I think 2015,” he said. “The crowds were much smaller.”
“2016,” Toledo deadpanned (and he was right — they played the 450-capacity Central Presbyterian Church), before launching into the remarkably on-the-nose “”Drugs with Friends.” The audience grabbed hold of the opening lyric, “I get to know myself every weekend and I’m weak,” and by the time Toledo reached the chorus, he had achieved his own makeshift anthem as fans chanted in unison: “Drugs are better than friends are better than drugs are better than friends!”
Will Toledo is not a rockstar. But he knows how to read a crowd.