To say Wednesday night's concert by the Cars was no-nonsense would be putting it mildly. That's a back-handed compliment, though. The veteran rock band -- together again for the first time in a quarter-century -- played a pragmatic, 90-minute set hitting many career highlights, but a lack of frills made for an occasionally monotone show that also lacked a few thrills.
The four founding members (original bassist Ben Orr died in 2000) hit the Riviera Theatre stage in darkness, illuminated by camera flashes, and eased into the set via the calmest party anthem ever, "Good Times Roll." They then unpacked a set of classic top-10 hits, from their 1977-87 run, and album tracks fresh out of storage and unadulterated. There was no "updating" to be done here. The Cars' blend of sci-fi keyboards and blade-running guitars sounded a little 21st century when they first emerged, and their new album, "Move Like This," picks up as if alt-rock, hip-hop and electronica never happened.
The Cars presaged much of that, after all -- and singer Ric Ocasek has produced dozens of popular acts in the interim, from Weezer to No Doubt -- so now the reunited Cars sound fairly contemporary. Ocasek, though, is nothing if not subtle and subdued. Typically tall, rail-thin and gaunt, with only a few more lines in his jowls (he looks like actor James Cromwell with a dye job), Ocasek spent Wednesday night drifting to and from his microphone and finessing the rhythm guitar parts -- a perfect study in New Wave nonchalance.
Of course, there's deadpan, and then there's dull. David Byrne, Beck and many others have foregone obvious emotion and still pulled off engaging, theatrical shows. True to form, Ocasek spent the entire evening as if he were waiting on the valet to bring him his keys. At first, all shadowy and stoic, this seems unassailably cool; after an hour, he just comes off as a dullard. ("Do you have to be so hard to get?" he sang in the pleasant surprise of "Up and Down.") His lack of any visible interest helped weigh down the latter half of the set, which turned to a lengthy string of slow ballads, starting with the new and unfortunately titled "Drag on Forever" and including such curios as "I'm Not the One" and "Heartbeat City." A guy behind me shouted, "Why not rock?!" and received a commiserating laugh from fans nearby.
The real energy on stage crackled from keyboardist Greg Hawkes, as jittery a live wire as his frenzied synth parts, and spaced-out, left-handed guitarist Elliot Easton. (Chicagoans last saw those two at Ravinia in 2006 when they were touring as the New Cars, with Todd Rundgren filling in at the mike.) Hawkes played bass on "I'm in Touch With Your World," a song he dedicated to the late Orr before mentioning that the band hadn't played it since it appeared on the self-titled debut. (Other bass parts were handled by Hawkes on keys or were on prerecorded backing tracks.) Easton's short, sharp solos provided exhilarating little bursts of restraint, stabbing holes in the taut fabric of "Touch and Go" and revving up the stadium rock of "Just What I Needed." Drummer David Robinson stuck to the click track behind the kit.
Now comes the part that matters most: Can or will they stick together for a real second act, not only to prove themselves beyond the '80s reunion-concert payday but to make another Cars album, one that's more than merely a dressed-up Ocasek record?
The Cars set list Wednesday night:
"Good Times Roll"
"Since You're Gone"
"Up and Down"
"My Best Friend's Girl"
"Touch and Go"
"I'm in Touch With Your World"
"Keep on Knocking"
"You Might Think"
"Drag on Forever"
"I'm Not the One"
"Heartbeat City "
"Moving in Stereo"
"Just What I Needed"
"You're All I've Got Tonight"