The Cars at Hollywood Palladium: Concert Review

12:57 PM PST 05/13/2011 by Erik Pedersen

Just like the old days, the reunited band just didn't seem into it.

The Cars made some great, enduring records; there’s little argument about that. And their new one, the reunited band’s first in 24 years, is surprisingly good. But whether Carter, Reagan or Obama is in the White House, they’ve just never been able to bring it live.

Thursday’s gig at the Hollywood Palladium? To quote a Cars contemporary whose fans would melt for a reunion: Same as it ever was.

The place was sold out, and the excitement in the crowd was palpable: All four surviving original members. No opening act. Many of the aging new wavers flying their old colors via hairdos and getups. Old rockers talking about the old songs. Everything was ripe for a memorable night of nostalgia mixed with solid new material.

But a scripted and workmanlike recital, aggravating lack of volume and uninspired set list -- and set -- curbed the enthusiasm. The primed crowd enjoyed the opening “Good Times Roll,” but it plodded. And from there, the Cars opted to leave their concert-ready fastest oldies (think “Candy-O,” “Don’t Cha Stop,” “Shake It Up,” “I Got a Lot on My Head”) on the shelf in favor of such down-tempo fare as “Since You’re Gone,” “I’m Not the One” and “Heartbeat City.” Playing only one of their four top 10 singles and gambling with too many slow ones -- while not including their biggest pop hit, “Drive” -- it was a recipe for mediocrity.

One would think that dour-faced frontman Ric Ocasek might have taken a new approach to Cars concerts after a quarter-century on the sidelines. He used to just stand there and sing and play guitar, not saying anything between songs, often looking disinterested -- like a clock-watching cubicle drone. Fast-forward to the fast-paced, visuals-oriented 2010s, and nothing has changed. Quirky can be kitschy, but icy is not cool.

The band chose not to replace its late bassist Benjamin Orr, who also sang many of the Cars’ most popular songs. Instead, Greg Hawkes stepped away from his keyboards for a couple of numbers to play bass, leaving the band’s signature synth hooks unattended. Nice idea, but it didn’t really work.

Hawkes made a brief stab at audience connection. “The last time we were in Los Angeles was 1987,” he said. (Cheers.) “That’s almost 10 years.” No-frills/few-fills drummer David Robinson could have chimed in with a rimshot, but that would have meant going off-script, which they never did.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the show was the band’s refusal to deploy its secret weapon. Lefty guitarist Elliot Easton can play; listen again to the old records, and his solos often careen off the grooves. But he was brutally underused. It was the opposite of what made the New Cars tour of 2006 such surprise fun. Fronted by a reinvigorated Todd Rundgren, that group put Easton on full display, turning the keyboard-heavy old songs into guitar-driven rave-ups. And there was an infectious enthusiasm that was clearly missing Thursday.

Set closer “Let’s Go” got the otherwise chatty crowd back into it. After the enjoyable encore of “Moving in Stereo,” Hawkes teased its LP synth segue into “All Mixed Up” on the first album. Instead, they played a fun but unmoving “Just What I Needed” and split -- after 83 minutes.

The new songs ranged from OK to pretty good, with “Blue Tip” and the catchy “Keep on Knocking” standing out. There was no mention of Move Like This, the band’s well-reviewed album that streeted Tuesday. They played six of its 10 songs to polite applause, but none sounded like a surefire staple of future concerts.

Which begs a question: Are the Cars back to stay or just in for a quickie? Thursday’s show was the second of a 10-date U.S. tour (expect a live DVD). If they’re testing the waters for an extensive summer shed tour, the anticipation and sellouts might tip the scales that way. But despite the solid new record, word-of-mouth could hurt that plan unless the band puts more sheer effort into its live act.

This for many was a chance to say, “I’ve seen the Cars -- the original Cars.” But will they remember the actual show years later? Debatable.

 

SET LIST:

Good Times Roll

Blue Tip

Since You’re Gone

Up and Down

My Best Friend’s Girl

Hits Me

Touch and Go

I’m in Touch With Your World

Keep on Knocking

You Might Think

Drag on Forever

Free

I’m Not the One

Sad Song

Heartbeat City

Let’s Go

ENCORE

Moving in Stereo

Just What I Needed

E-mail: erik.pedersen@thr.com

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