Night At the Museum: Car Seat Headrest and Night Beats

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On April Fool’s Day, Car Seat Headrest headlined a night at the museum, but it was no prank. Throughout the spring, our city’s fine Natural History Museum hosts a “First Fridays” series of talks, events, and live music down in Exposition Park.

On April 1, we fought through the delicious breeze of grease and grilled cheese wafting from food trucks parked at the impressive front steps, and were greeted by the grinning skulls of epic dinosaur skeletons in the entrance hall. The Natural History Museum is the kind of magical place where you can hear a rumor that “drinks are cheaper in the African Mammal Hall.” And the drinks were certainly flowing there as DJs Aaron Byrd and Mo:Rockin brought the funk, surrounded by the stuffed displays of lions and antelope, as well as more lively Angeleno mammals. Making use of our still-mobile legs, we scurried off to the North American diorama room to catch Night Beats’ opening set.

Among the scenic still lives of wolves and mountain goats and moose — ears perked at attention —the Seattle band was setting a driving pace and dynamic tone. Songs like “Shangri Lah” and “Bad Love,” from their album Who Sold My Generation (2016, Heavenly Recordings), add a western tinge to their psych rock which seems primed for a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. That is, if Tarantino set the movie in a taxidermy shop in the desert and Che Guevara was the lead actor. Dressed (a la Che) in all black with a jaunty military beret and a black eye, lead singer/guitarist Danny Lee Blackwell was a still force to be reckoned with, powerful and commanding — throwing out lyrics in a voice that ranged from Robert Plant to Neil Young and cleaning the neck of his guitar with long, impressive licks, while bandmates — the cowboy-hatted bassist Tarek Wegner and long-locked drummer James Traeger —bounced around to the garage rock energy of their music.

Keeping with the swift schedule of the museum, headliner Car Seat Headrest took to the stage at 9:15pm. The now-four-piece band is the brainchild of Will Toledo.

With his lanky frame and Lit Major glasses, Toledo looks like the kid you had a (maybe-not-so-secret) crush on in high school — if that kid turned out to be a musical genius. Toledo has been self-producing scores and scores of his own stuff since he was a teenager, and his adeptness at and knowledge of instrumentation, composition, even vocalizations (like his punkish sliding harmonies with his guitarist) shine through in what is an amazingly relaxed show (performance does not seem to be the right word). Indeed, his face is so boyish and his stage presence so unassuming, the audience didn’t even seem to catch most of the witticisms he would intonate in his low register. He is quicker than most, and it’s hard to keep up.

But no matter, the music spoke for itself. Car Seat Headrest creates layered songs with non-traditional structures — often breaking out of meandering lyrcisim into an epic, foot-stomping chorus. Toledo, too, is breaking out of the “lo-fi” bedroom (or carseat) genre and stepping onto a more indie-rock mainstage.

He continues to be prolific — opting to play brand-new singles like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and the noisy “Vincent,” as well as stand-out track “Unforgiving Girl” from the upcoming Teens of Denial (out May 20 from Matador Records), rather than his most well-known piece “Times to Die” from last year’s Teens of Style.

But the crowd seemed satisfied; they danced, laughed, swayed; some in front jumped and pushed and banged heads; couples kissed and grinded hips and stared deeply into one another’s eyes. Tall people blocked views; short people leaned to-and-fro to get a better look; people all around scratched and drank and probably farted too — all the things that can be so annoyingly human when you’re at a rock show. But in the hallowed ground of the North American Mammal Hall, surrounded by the taxidermied carcasses of once-wild species, their beady replacement eyes staring blankly out at us, death was apparent and inevitable. So, there was nothing we could do but enjoy ourselves.

Courtlin Byrd is a freelance writer living & working in Los Angeles. Most days, she can be found driving the hills in her ’97 Volvo, dancing in diners Audrey-Horne-style, or online here.