First Avenue's Mainroom seems to be making a habit of hosting larger-than-life (and larger-than-club-sized) musical icons this year. Between Lauryn Hill in January, Paul Simon earlier this month and last night's Cars show, one of only 11 stops on their first tour in 24 years, downtown's big black box has been the site of some straight-up legendary performances.
Which isn't to say that the Cars show was flawless; much like their new album, Move Like This, their singles are leaps and bounds more enjoyable than their tepid ballads. But the opportunity to see the Cars in such a rare appearance at such a small venue is a joy in and of itself, and it was clear that the crowd cherished that aspect of the show as well.
Speaking of those hits: the band didn't waste any time serving up a crowd-pleaser. After sauntering casually out onto the stage, with Ric Ocasek moving so slowly that it looked like he was plodding along under water, baggy black dress clothes hanging off his rail-thin frame, the band launched right into "Good Times Roll." The band looked and sounded incredibly polished; though Ocasek stood stoically for most of the show, peering down through black sunglasses to read the song lyrics off a propped-up iPad, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton remained animated throughout the set, with Hawkes bouncing up and down and widening his eyes at the crowd.
"It's nice to be here on the First Avenue," Hawkes said between songs, eyebrows raised, as a ripple of warm laughter shot through the crowd.
The second song, "Blue Tip," sounded just as fresh, and it showed early on that the Cars' new material could blend in seamlessly with their old classics. They ended up sprinkling six songs off Move Like This into their 19-song set, and in addition to sounding like classic Cars songs they also reminded a bit of Devo (especially with Hawkes' nimble synthesizer work) and, at one point, Talking Heads. Which is to say that the new material sounds oddly familiar and satisfyingly catchy, so much so that the opening strains of both "Free" and "Sad Song" had the crowd cheering like they were recognizing one of their favorite songs.
By mid-set, Ocasek appeared to loosen up a bit, even letting himself smile sweetly at a row of younger girls in the front row who held up construction paper signs with the lyrics to his songs, and he appeared to feed off the energy that poured out of Easton and Hawkes as they played. Hawkes stepped up to the mic to give a "tip of the hat to our comrade Ben Orr" before "Touch and Go," while Easton took his turn at addressing the crowd in the encore, saying "We've only played this song today at sound check twice, so if we fuck it up you won't care, will you?"
Though the band has stuck to the same set list throughout all of their tour dates thus far, the band decided to offer up an extra treat for Minneapolis. After "Just What I Needed," the band met briefly at the center of the stage to talk shop and then launched into a joyful version of "You're All I've Got Tonight" that sounded incredibly tight despite the fact that they had barely rehearsed it. To seal the deal, Ocasek turned to the crowd, waved goodbye, and declared, "You're the best crowd so far!"