After the Cars' 1988 breakup, singer-guitarist Ric Ocasek flatly discouraged any reunion talk. Of course, that's all in the past: This week saw the release of a new studio album, Move Like This, and a reunion tour that unexpectedly bridges the band's New Wave past with a fresh batch of songs in the present.
On the second date of their U.S. tour last night, the Cars performed to a packed room at the Hollywood Palladium, opening amid icy waves of synth, electric guitar and Ocasek's unhurried growl on "Let the Good Times Roll," the first track off the Boston act's 1978 debut. "The last time the Cars were in Los Angeles was in 1987," declared keyboardist Greg Hawkes between songs.
In many ways, the band looked much as it did the last time we saw them, except for the significant absence of bassist Benjamin Orr, lead singer of such hits as "Just What I Needed" and "Candy-O," who died in 2000 of pancreatic cancer. The surviving quartet lined up together as equals at the front of the stage, with Ocasek calmly plucking his guitar in a black jacket and shades.
There are more hits in the Cars catalog than could fit easily into the night's 75-minute performance, but there was a good sampling of what led the band from quirky Seventies New Wave act to classic rock mainstay. Fans shouted along to 1984's "You Might Think" and cheered to the early rock & roll guitar thump from the opening of "My Best Friend's Girl."
New songs had a central place in the set, while connecting almost seamlessly to their music of the Seventies and Eighties with the bleeps and riffs of "Blue Tip." Guitarist Elliot Easton introduced the nervous, melancholy "Sad Song," and noted, "This one is our new single – never thought I'd say that again."
Another new song, "Keep On Knocking," was a mashup of muscular guitar and synth swells that sounded like an outtake from Neil Young's Trans, minus Ocasek's hiccup vocal. On "Hits Me," the singer considered the years frantically going past: "I gotta just get through it . . . I gotta just get through these changing times."
Hardcore fans were rewarded with "I'm in Touch with Your World," an obscure track from the debut album that the band hadn't performed since the Seventies. It was the most Devo-like of all their repertoire.
As the night wound down, the Cars opened a two-song encore with their spooky, synth epic "Moving in Stereo," which was a little bumpy at first. It was the sound of a veteran act getting reacquainted at their second gig in about 23 years, and Ocasek smiled when it was over. In his first spoken words of the evening, he joked: "We're going to learn that someday."