Nostalgia may have fueled the ticket sales for the Cars concert last night at the Roseland Ballroom, in New York City, but once inside the venue, the audience was reminded of why the band stood out from their pop and New Wave brethren. Each member of the band--which had its peak years from 1978 to 1984--offers a distinct and strong personality, and all meld together in the service of simple, insanely catchy pop songs.
Their set started out slow, both in tempo and in energy level, with Good Times Roll unfolding at a stately pace. But by the time they got around to Let's Go, an archetypal pop song about going out on the town with a bewitching woman, the band was firing on all cylinders and the capacity crowd was ecstatic.
Five of the 15 songs the Cars performed in the main part of the concert were from their new album, Move Like This. Rather than dragging down the old favorites, the new tunes sounded fresh and vibrant--and tooled more appropriately to the Cars' current lineup without the deceased bassist, Ben Orr. It's unlikely the Cars will again storm the charts as they did in the late 1970s and '80s, racking up more than a dozen Top 40 hits. But the band's new material demonstrates sharp musical sensibilities and the same surprising combination of approaches and vibes that made them different from what was on the radio in their heyday.
Keyboardist Greg Hawkes comes off as fully immersed in New Wave, from his bowl haircut to the tight black clothes to the robotic moves he busted during particularly percussive synthesizer parts. With Orr gone, Hawkes pulled double duty, playing keys and the basslines with his left hand--and picking up the bass for a few songs (most notably I'm in Touch With Your World) that needed the sound of strings being attacked by a human hand.
The sometimes oddly twangy sound of Elliott Easton's guitar always added a refreshing dimension to the Cars sound, and this was on good display last night, as in Touch and Go. Easton seemed most interested in playing intriguing fills and the beloved solos of Cars hits, with Ric Ocasek providing a lot of the chunky rhythm guitar parts. Ocasek looked the same as he did 30 years ago, and his voice remained idiosyncratic and appropriate for this band, which had always blended the cool with the curious, the simple with the stacked synth, the popular with the peculiar. Moving in Stereo--which kicked off an encore that also featured crowd favorites Just What I Needed and You're All I've Got Tonight--is an early and prototypical Cars success, with swirling sonic effects and trippy, nearly unhinged lyrics insinuating their way into your consciousness via a simple melody on the keyboard.
The Cars are extremely lucky that Dave Robinson, a solid drummer who brings force and imagination to parts but keeps things simple, decided to join their oddly inventive endeavor.
The crowd got what it wanted, with hits such as My Best Friend's Girl and I'm Not the One drawing applause, but album cuts like Heartbeat City found more life in concert than on record, and the grinding, loud guitar riffs of Since You're Gone were something of a revelation--I'd love to hear a hard rock band cover this tune.
Among the new songs, Free and Sad Song stood out. It's doubtful that radio stations will give much support to the Cars' new material, and that will keep it out of the public consciousness. But songwriter Ocasek and his bandmates certainly still have what it takes to hook a listener.