I’ve never seen so much rain
It seems without rhyme or reason
Enough to make you insane…
The opening lyrics to the New Cars track “Warm” from their new It’s Alive CD would have been all too fitting for this occasion. On a day of heavy rains, during a wet spring most New Englanders have not seen in a lifetime, well, let’s just say we could have related. But ballads were not on the menu, with one token exception. This was a night to remember new wave rock when there was no wave… when it was just a ripple.
Blondie took the stage first with Debbie Harry dressed for the weather in a lime green jumpsuit. With the rest of the band dressed in black, it was obvious who the standout members were of this band. Ms. Harry of course, and drummer Clem Burke, with his red CBGB’s tee shirt, a nod to the NYC club that Blondie, along with other new wave acts like The Ramones, Talking Heads, and The Patti Smith Group made famous in the late 70’s.
It is easy to forget what a force Blondie was when they broke the national scene in 1978 with their third album, Parallel Lines. (No, it does not include the Rundgren song by that name.) While other new wave acts enjoyed critical success and street cred, Blondie had all that plus the commercial cache of number one hits. They opened with one of them, “Call Me,” and the star quality of Debbie Harry was still very much evident.
Clem Burke is the heart of this band. He looks like a cross between a younger Keith Moon (his Premier drum kit with the mod arrows add to that connection) and an older Billie Jo Armstrong, the Green Day singer. It was astounding how he could sound so heavy, yet seem play so light. The sticks looked like toothpicks in his hands, not because of any speedball licks but for the effortless joy in his playing, always coming at you with cute triplets or a sixteenth-note shimmy. This is the guy who single-handedly morphed a disco beat into an offbeat new-wavy dance-rock track with “Heart of Glass,” their breakthrough single and closing song. No wonder Clem was an early choice for the drum chair of the New Cars, before they came upon Prairie Prince via Todd.
Their set proceeded along nicely, with most of the crowd not resisting the grooves, standing and swaying. “More Than This,” the cover of the glossy Roxy Music ray of light, was something I was looking forward to. It came off as less than transcendent, the high guitar parts nowhere to be heard. Another cover was the Stones “Paint it Black,” reminding me of the first time I saw Blondie, when they opened with “Start Me Up” back in 1980. Start with a base of dance club beats, add some punk and reggae, throw in bits of British rock and you get close to the Blondie recipe. The roof was raised with “One Way or Another,” the heavy guitar riff bringing back memories of slam dancing. Not something we would see tonight… too many puddles.
Soon the New Cars took the stage, and it was a relief to see Todd headline a large crowd with a well-produced stage and light show. The Prairie Prince-designed set with large circular video screens made the band seem larger than life, and the sound they brought lived up to the image. This edition takes what was a new wave pop band and makes them into a full-blown rock machine. They did not perform the old songs as if they had to ask permission, as if they hoped for your approval. They came straight at you with respect for the arrangements and the confidence to take it further. Maybe not with a little more humanity please – can’t lose that Cars coolness – but with more volume, more bite, more aggression.
A big reason Todd Rundgren captured my imagination years ago was the sense that the guy could do just about anything musically. This gig with the New Cars may not be a dream fulfilled for many fans, but is further proof that if he can’t do everything, he can certainly do a heck of a lot. It is Todd as rock and roll journeyman, the next bullet in a long resume filled with production gigs, the classic rock primer of Faithful, the Ringo All-Star tours, a Beatlemaniac walking down Abbey Road, or sitting in with a rock and soul band or a string quartet. Wherever he lays his licks, that’s his home.
You could tell when the Todd songs were coming – whenever he introduced a song it was usually one of his own. He didn’t need banter to front the Cars material. All it seemed to require was a cool detachment, easy enough for him, plus an urgency to prove he could indeed nail it. Seeing him do it in Boston, the city where the Cars got their start, was a treat. Whenever you can see Todd perform in a situation where he just might feel a need to prove himself, go for it. He always rises to the occasion.
The locals did seem to go for it. They shouted familiar lines into the night like “Here she comes again” and “I like the night life, baybay!” Todd had his way with the tasty vocal inflections, at times sounding like Ocasek, or David Byrne, or even a mod Elvis, especially with his glittering gold jacket. When the first Todd song came along, “I Saw the Light,” it didn’t clash with the Cars material. And when Elliot Easton’s guitar solo mirrored Todd’s own, it was the first time I had ever heard that produced live as it was on the record with the dueling solo. Good thing I waited on the bathroom break before this song, ‘cause I ran out before, but I won’t do it anymore.
“Dangerous Type” had the group rocking hard, with Elliot and Todd trading licks. This might be what it would have sounded like had there been a second guitarist in Utopia. In fact, the next song, “Moving in Stereo,” would sound quite at home on a latter-day Utopia record. Life’s the same, except for my shoes. That and the singer, the bass player, and the drummer. And speaking of the bass player, it was great to hear the ageless Kasim Sulton sing the lead on “All Mixed Up,” the criss-crossing lights adding image to the words.
Next came the coup de grace for Todd fans, “Black Maria,” which found Todd truly making his guitar gently weep – and his fans cry for more. This is the song where you can look around and find out who the Todd fans are in the crowd. While it is a screaming guitar song, with great support by Elliot Easton, it is Prairie Prince that makes this song. His hard rock groove – heavy but not plodding – made me wonder what might have been had this guy played drums for Utopia years ago.
Nearly everyone was shaking their head after that song, Todd fans out of triumph and Cars fans wondering what hit them. Then head shaking continued with “You Might Think,” an up-tempo pop number that flowed like oil into water. It was a jarring transition. Todd next introduced the band, playing up the original Cars members on their home turf, and saving the final intro for Kasim, who sang the lone ballad of the night, “Drive.” He sang it well, hitting all the notes, but for some it was just a sit-down song or an opportunity to run through the rain for refreshment.
Todd was talking again, and soon the band came center stage for an island version of “Bang the Drum” with Elliot and Greg Hawkes on dueling ukuleles. Nice, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would sound like if the band actually played in more of a rock style. My wish was granted, as they soon scurried back to their pods to rock it up. And rock on they did, closing the set with a loud bang with “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love” and the new “Not Tonight.”
They closed with three encores. First the Circuit City commercial, then a Todd chestnut from the Nazz days, “Open My Eyes.” Always a treat to hear this song, but it was nothing close to the home run that “Black Maria” was earlier in the night. “Good Times Roll” had the crowd pumping fists and smiling on the way out. As we left I even heard one fan claim it was just about the greatest thing he had ever heard. While it was surely an overstatement, it was just what I needed to know that most Cars fans would not react angrily to this Road Rage comeback tour. They don’t mind you comin’ here… in fact they kinda lose their mind.
And so The New Cars roll on. Just what is so new about this hybrid model? Well, for one thing, we know that smells are important. Where Ocasek once sang “It’s not the perfume that you wear,” Todd counters with “I don’t know what that cologne is… but it’s working like a charm.” We know there is nothing lacking in engine performance. What we don’t yet know is if there is enough creative spark to make this new again, something more than new wave nostalgia with a twist. We’ll soon see just how much these words ring true from the other new song from It’s Alive:
I want more – I haven’t had enough
I want more – can’t get it out of my brain
I want more – no I haven’t had enough, I haven’t had enough
‘Cause it was excellent