The Cars Drive Off, Again

After 23 years the group returns for a terse performance at the Fox Theater.

Exciting, yes. Maybe even intoxicating. But definitely too short. That was the general consensus among concertgoers as they shambled down Telegraph Avenue on Friday night, after watching The Cars descend on the Fox Theater. It was the show that some art rock devotees had waited 23 years to see. And by 9:30 p.m., it was over.

“That Ric Ocasek, he didn’t spend a lot of time bantering with the crowd,” a man confided to his friend, more in puzzlement than annoyance.

“Yeah, Ric,” the friend snickered, in the manner of someone who’d known Cars frontman Ocasek for a long time. Or at least long enough to understand the singer’s eccentricities. “Yeah, he’s always been kind of, you know, stoned.”

Well, possibly. Although the fact that he’s now 62 years old could count for something.

That said, The Cars look virtually unchanged from their heyday. Ocasek might be a little more jowly, but he’s still capable of a stern, withering look — even with sunglasses on. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes is still a cute, gender-ambiguous platinum blond. Guitarist Elliot Easton can still rock a modish bowl cut, albeit slightly more conservative than before. From far away, the only band member who looks older is drummer David Robinson, and that’s only because the long hair gives him away.

The Cars announced their retirement in 1988, twelve years before the death of bassist Benjamin Orr, of pancreatic cancer. And unlike other aging pop stars, they appeared to really mean it. Ocasek promised in subsequent interviews that he wasn’t planning to launch any reunion tours or drop any albums after the band’s expiration date. So it was a welcome surprise when the band had a sudden change of heart last year. Perhaps they were embarrassed into it, after Easton and Hawkes attempted to resurrect the group with a different lineup in 2005 (not surprisingly, The New Cars foundered). Or maybe it was the resurgence of new-wave styles in pop culture. Maybe, as the official story has it, they just reunited through Facebook.

Whatever the case, fans were pumped, as indicated by the packed house at the Fox, where the median age fell somewhere between forty and sixty. The Cars played a fast, terse set of old hits and tunes from their new album, Move Like This, which sounds uncannily like it could have been issued in the mid-Eighties. Even in Orr’s absence, the band’s orchestration hasn’t really changed: Ocasek still supplies rhythm guitar beneath Easton’s lead, while Hawkes handles most of the bass lines on keyboard (he also plays bass on a few of the album cuts). Songs like “Keep on Knocking,” which hovers on a blocky three-chord riff, and the effervescent pop track “Free” seem nearly indistinguishable from the band’s old catalog. Ocasek has the same hiccuppy vocals, the same tendency to jump a few pitches in the middle of a lyric, the same way of chomping off consonants at the ends of words. And he’s still cool enough to stand with hands clasped behind his back, sentry-like, whenever he cedes guitar duties to Easton.

Not surprisingly, Move Like This got a pretty warm reception from consumers, and it’s only been out for a week. But it was the old hits that really worked the crowd at the Fox — songs like “Let’s Go” and “You Might Think,” which is perhaps the best stalker love song of all time. (In the video, Ocasek attempts to woo a woman by popping through the pipes in her bathtub, and inserting himself into a tube of lipstick.) Most fans could recognize the hits from a single opening chord.

So perhaps it was a good thing that The Cars hewed to the recorded versions of their songs as much as possible, and kept the banter to a minimum. Fans sang with the choruses and clapped along, arhythmically, with Robinson’s drum fills. Mid-set, Ocasek peered at the crowd the way a person appraises furniture. “We have a lot to talk about tonight,” he said. It came off as a joke.

The show went by with a kind of mechanical precision that probably suited the band’s fan base. Background projections showed propeller patterns, cityscapes, close-ups of a computer keyboard, and screensaver psychedelia, which gave the illusion of a wilder, more free-ranging performance. Fans tottered contentedly from side to side, many of them exactly offbeat. The lights went dim between numbers, providing the equivalent of a punctuation mark. By the time the band took its second encore — a rousing rendition of its most ubiquitous hit, “Just What I Needed” — they’d already covered a huge swath of material. And the night was still young.

“One twenty-nine,” said a man in a Chris Robinson T-shirt, glancing down at his watch as the lights came up.

Perhaps it’s always better to end on a peak. That seems to be The Cars’ MO, after all.


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