The last Friday Cheers of the year is always cause for both lamentation and celebration — sadness at having to wait until the next Cheers season, but joy looking back at the previous weeks Brown’s Island.
What better setting for a homecoming show with Charlottesville’s Gold Connections and fellow William and Mary alums Car Seat Headrest: two bands that know how to balance weighty introspection and moments of top-volume emotive bliss?
Gold Connections set a searing tone in their opening set, with songs from their 2017 self-titled EP (and a poised, downbeat version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”), voiced by two guitars, bass and drums with a sharp, all-Fender front line.
Singer Will Marsh jumped between low and high registers with ease, giving tremendous energy to choruses like that of their last song, “Icarus,” which featured Car Seat Headrest frontman and Leesburg, Virginia native Will Toledo on guest guitar and backing vocals. “Get back to rock and roll,” they screamed while crashing against their Strat’s and Tele’s, icons that have stood the test of time.
Toledo was back shortly with his band, which I’d gotten to know during two 2016 performances — at the Black Cat and at the National — as a tight and explosive group.
SG wielding Ethan Ives in a hand-drawn “Listen to Fugazi” t-shirt. Drummer Andrew Katz sporting an absorbent headband. Seth Dalby, formerly of Richmond group Floodwall, with his baby blue bass.
They went straight to work, letting loose intense versions of “Vincent” and “Fill in the Blank,” the first two songs on the group’s breakout Teens of Denial album from last year.
Toledo’s stage presence was characteristically magnetic. The locomotive of a passing train actually stopped on the nearby tracks. (I can’t confirm it was because the conductor is a Car Seat Headrest fan, nor can I rule it out.) Deadpan-sung verses draw you in and reward close listening, and Toledo guitar solos are frequently performed with his back to the audience. But he unleashes these big, crunchy choruses with exceptionally bold, sustained notes, inviting even chattier crowds in the back to stop and sing along.
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” had each of these elements and were performed early on, when there was still light and you could survey widely the engagement he inspires. You know a band is working hard when a James Brown cover (“I Don’t Mind”) gives people a chance to catch their breath.
That engagement boiled over as night fell, and the show took on the club atmosphere I felt at those 2016 shows. “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” was accompanied by outbreaks of crowd-surfing and an enthusiastic singalong. It felt good to be there, to see music connecting people via such an honest emotional intensity.
It’s tempting to point to Nirvana when talking about Car Seat Headrest, given Toledo’s grasp of the quiet-loud polarity Kurt Cobain mastered. But I’d argue it was Cobain’s rarified gift for melody that made Nirvana transcendent, and Toledo is right there with him.
And I see so many shades of Jonny Greenwood, from the Telecaster and the solipsistic, head-down focus during lead sections to the way Toledo crouched during the show’s finale, “Beast Monster Thing (Love Isn’t Love Enough),” to manipulate pedals and turn looped tones into a possible soundtrack for Brown’s Island ascending into space and drifting back down. I can report that it was a perfect landing.
And I can’t wait for the 2018 Friday Cheers season to take off.
Check out photos of the show by Ashley Travis below:
Car Seat Headrest