Gas prices are high, but that’s not keeping the Cars off the road.
The New Cars, that is.
The group, which guitarist Elliot Easton calls “a new chapter in our band’s existence,” is defi nitely a different model from the vehicle that drove 13 Top 40 hits onto the Billboard charts between 1978-86. Founding members Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes are on board, but the other three passengers are new — veteran hitmaker Todd Rundgren, who replaces frontman and chief songwriter Ric Ocasek; longtime Rundgren collaborator Kasim Sulton, who’s also Meat Loaf’s music director, standing in for the late bassist Benjamin Orr; and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince in lieu of David Robinson.
The New Cars released an album, “It’s Alive” — featuring concert recordings of the hits and three new songs, including the single “Not Tonight” — in June. Their mission for now is to establish this “new” band that happens to have a history with both existing fans and newcomers.
“It’s the Cars,” says Easton, 52, “but it’s a new lineup, and once we remind people of who we are and what we’ve accomplished in the past, we’d very much like to add to that legacy.”
For Rundgren, meanwhile, having new material “was actually our fi rst order of business. In order to get on with the serious business of rebranding — i.e. the NEW Cars — we had to do something that wasn’t simply dipping into the old catalog. We had to have some sort of story to tell that would make the New Cars more interesting.”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the New Cars’ situation is that it appears to be happening without acrimony between the original Cars. Robinson is retired from music, and Ocasek, who was never a big fan of touring, has given his blessing to the endeavor — though those two, as well as Orr’s estate, still maintain a financial stake in all things Cars-related.
“If they want to go out and play Cars songs, I wouldn’t have any problem with that,” says Ocasek, who maintains careers as a solo artist and producer and recently compiled the historical DVD “The Cars Unlocked.” “I’ve never really wanted to have a reunion, but I don’t want to hold ack anybody else.” Easton, who was lso part of the controersial Creedence learwater Revisited formed by Creedence earwater Revival’s ythm section over the otests and ultimately successful legal chalge by frontman John erty — says he preciates Ocasek’s ition. think that’s a really attitude for him to e,” the guitarist says. ’ve all stayed friends, I think everybody ted the assurance we n’t going to be trashur legacy but that we going to do it with ct, reverence. was never a big, ed thing — just a matf working out the ls of how we can do and also, do (he and kes) have a right to do e still want to?” ston says there’s long been interest in putting some form of the group back together since the Cars ran out of gas in 1988.
But he adds that “left to our own devices, it just seemed to fall by the wayside and never really happen.” After Orr’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2000, “the likelihood seemed even less,” but new management set the Cars’ reunion wheels spinning again — and convinced Easton and Hawkes to keep the engine running even after Ocasek and Robinson passed on the idea.
Rundgren — whose career dates back to the Nazz in the late ’60s — was “the fi rst name on a very short list,” according to Easton.
“Todd is a wildly creative guy,” the guitarist explains. “I don’t think if we had offered him to just go and stand up there and sing classic Cars songs that would have been all that soul-satisfying to him. It’s a starting point, that’s all.”
The three new songs on “It’s Alive” came from ideas each of the three principals — Easton, Hawkes and Rundgren — brought to initial rehearsals in August of 2005.
“We need to develop an identity that is separate from mine and moves forward from what people know about the Cars to this point,” says Rundgren, whose band Utopia shared concert stages with the Cars in the ’70s and early ’80s.
He’s putting some musical projects on hold to accommodate the New Cars’ schedule, but he finds the new concern even more stimulating than his previous associations with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and the Beatles tribute tour A Walk Down Abbey Road.
“I enjoy the collaborations with other musicians and also the potential for increased audience,” explains the Philadelphia-born Rundgren, 58.
“If you get to a certain point in your career, it’s extremely difficult to create new audiences. You’re playing to the same people, which is fine, but musicians are always looking for ways they an diversify and grow. So one of the reasons I join these types of collaborations is so that I get a chance to play for a larger and more diverse audience.”
They’re hoping that’s what turns out to see the New Cars this year. Easton — who broke his left collar bone in a June tour bus accident, forcing the band off the road for a while — claims that the musicians are “hoping that the Gods smile on this project,” but it sounds like the group plans to move forward regardless of heavenly approval.
“This is feeling like a band,” he says.
“There are no sort of sidemen in this thing. I think after the tour, we’ll take a breath from the road and start writing, then get together in groupings and see who’s got some ideas for songs and hammer them out and go into the studio and record them.
“We waited a long time for this to happen, so I don’t think we’re going to just do one summer tour and say, ‘That was fun. See ya around ...’ ”
The New Cars and Persephone's Bees perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (November 22nd) at the State Theatre, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $59.50 and $35. Call (313) 961-5450 or visit www.livenation.com.
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