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all words: Jesse Young (no photo pass for this show)

The Cars should be way more famous. Despite remaining in regular FM radio rotation over the 24 years since they broke up, you never hear the band name-checked with the same frequency as their other New Wave contemporaries. Sure, they never embraced the arty conceptual pretensions of The Talking Heads or Devo, nor did they cleverly challenge rock’s gender lines a la Blondie or The Pretenders. However, for what they lacked in fawning critical accolades, The Cars more than made up for it with songs. A mess of really, really good songs.

Which is part of what made The Cars’ sold-out gig at the 9:30 Club on Monday such a pleasure: seeing, up close and personal, the immense outpouring of affection for this band nearly a quarter-century after they called it quits. For this short theater tour in support of their new album Move Like This, the band is touring as a quartet, making up for their late bassist Ben Orr’s absence with pre-recorded backing tracks and keyboard parts. As such, there’s an intimacy to these shows that seems well-suited to the small venues they’re playing – it’s just four guys on stage, making no attempt to hide their age or alter their sound remotely.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpJQWGA1O8s

Clearly determined to keep the show from becoming a night devoted entirely to Reagan-era nostalgia, the band played more than half of their new album, which is (thankfully) quite good. Taking a page from the aforementioned Devo, the band engineered the record to sound exactly like that of their early-80s heyday, chock-full of bright synthesizers and crisp, processed drums. As such, the new stuff fits in pretty seamlessly with the old stuff, giving the show a nice even keel.

The set was nonetheless full of all the crowd-pleasers one would expect. “You Might Think” sounded brighter and peppier than it does on record, and the band let the crowd joyously shout out the mid-song breakdown (But you kept it goin’/’Till the sun fell down/You kept it GOIN’”). “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” gave guitarist Elliot Easton a chance to stretch out with an extended solo at the song’s close. Even though the band left them out of the song, a good portion of the audience gleefully supplied the handclaps during the chorus of the set-closing “Let’s Go.”

Ric Ocasek sounds exactly like he did thirty years ago, and looks much the same as well – a tall, gangly scarecrow of a frontman, obscured behind dark shades and an unbelievably restrained stage presence. Ocasek sings primarily in his comfortable middle register, and only for brief moments in songs like “Moving in Stereo” – that of the infamous Phoebe Cates striptease sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High – did he push into his upper vocal range.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p6a7CiP2bM

While this was never a band famous for their barn-burning live shows, The Cars’ set still felt somewhat straight-jacketed at points. The guitar solos, the synth riffs, the chiming backing vocals – everything was calibrated to offer an exact re-creation of the band’s studio output. The headphones worn by drummer David Robinson kept him tightly leashed to click track and pre-recorded bass and keyboard parts that fleshed out the song’s arrangements – not to mention the entirely electronic drumkit he was playing. The laptop perched next to keyboardist Greg Hawkes was a constant reminder that these were all songs recorded by five men, but being played by only four. Bassist and sometimes-vocalist Ben Orr died in 2000, and it was his rift with singer and songwriter Ric Ocasek that drove the band apart – and kept them apart. While the band clearly didn’t intend to present a dynamic live show on Monday, one wonders if they might have been bit more organic on stage as a quintet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yf2WP6K1gQ

I was all of three years old when The Cars split up in 1987. Let’s hope another quarter-century doesn’t pass before they hit the road again.

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