There’s something different about Will Toledo these days. It’s not so much a look as it is a feeling. He seems freer, happier, and more energized on stage than he ever has before – or at least compared to the couple of other times I’ve seen Car Seat Headrest perform. And while there are any number of reasons why this might be the case, my sneaking suspicion has to do with Naked Giants. Specifically, their presence as openers and additional members of Car Seat Headrest has shifted dynamics in a very exciting direction.

Expanding from a four to a seven piece ensemble does a couple of things. First, it adds more muscle and aggression to just about every single Car Seat Headrest song. Second, it frees Toledo from his guitar so he can throw all of his focus into singing and entertaining. He’s finally a full-on frontman, and it’s a very good look on him. Not only are his vocals sharper and more nuanced, but he’s not afraid to bounce around the stage a bit and throw out some sweet dance moves that occasionally resemble a robot doing the running man. These things make a real difference in the overall show by creating new avenues for the songs to flourish and the crowd to become more engaged.

Nobody was holding anything back both on stage and off this past Friday night when Car Seat Headrest rolled through Chicago for a show at the Riviera Theatre. The all ages crowd was fired up and ready to jump around and sing along as the set list dictated. Things kicked off in a psychedelic fashion with a piece of “The Ending of Dramamine” blended together effortlessly with a cover of Lou Reed’s “Waves of Fear”. It marked the first of two pseudo mash-ups, followed later by an inventive combination of “Sober to Death” and a cover of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “Powderfinger”. Those were moments that really showcased the talents and benefits of having an expanded lineup while playing around with expectations.

A slightly reworked version of “Fill in the Blank” marked the first of many big sing-alongs throughout the night, including the bridge of “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” and almost the entirety of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”. Near the end of the set, some people began to crowd surf during “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” while one of the band members climbed off the front of the stage and began to explore the space of the venue with a cowbell in hand. He eventually invited a pre-teen girl to take the cowbell and join him on stage, but she turned the offer down despite her mom’s encouragement. Not everybody wants the chance to seize the spotlight.

The 90-minute set ended with a triumphant version of “Something Soon,” followed by an encore of the lengthy Twin Fantasy opus “Beach Life-In-Death”. An epic conclusion to an epic night. There are few things more wonderful and satisfying than a show where the band and the crowd appear to be in sync and reflect their respective enthusiasm back on one another. Chicago was thrilled to have Car Seat Headrest back in town, and the band in turn delivered what I’d argue was their finest performance yet in our fair city.

Set List:
The Ending of Dramamine / Waves of Fear (Lou Reed cover)
Fill in the Blank
(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)
Cute Thing
Sober to Death / Powderfinger (Neil Young & Crazy Horse cover)
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
America (Never Been)
Destroyed By Hippie Powers
Something Soon
Beach Life-In-Death