Blue Oyster Cult
Old Shawnee Days Festival,
By Gary Shindler
The Red & the Black | The Golden Age of Leather | Burnin' For You | Career of Evil | Shooting Shark | The Vigil | Black Blade | Last Days of May | Buck Dharma Guitar Solo | Godzilla (with drum solo and Joan Jett/Todd Rundgren/Meat Loaf medley featuring Kasim Sultan| (Don’t Fear) the Reaper | Hot Rails to Hell
In recent years Blue Oyster Cult has received notoriety thanks to the Saturday Night Live episode with Christopher Walken portraying the stereotypical record producer coaxing Will Ferrell to become the cowbell-clanging dynamo that helped make “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” their highest charting hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. Okay, I will admit it is a funny skit (with absolutely no research done on any of the actual recording participants’ names) but it’s been cited so many times I’ve grown tired of casual fans of “Reaper” blurting out the catchphrase every time the band’s name comes up in conversation. It makes me sad that so many people don’t know the great songs written by these guys from Long Island, NY and their brainy, quirky take on heavy metal or hard rock.
So when I heard Blue Oyster Cult was headlining Old Shawnee Days and that I’d only have to drive 15 minutes to see them I was sold. I parked my car a few blocks away and walked to the festival grounds. The first stage I found was one of those little band stages featuring a cover band playing some song from the 90s. I worried that this tiny stage was where BOC would be performing. I knew that their last Kansas City visit was a free show at a barbeque festival held near the now vacant Kemper Arena, which they most likely headlined during their heyday in the 70s. The cover band’s singer mentioned they were halfway through their set and I panicked, asking a gentleman next to me if this was where BOC would be playing.
“No, what time are they playing? I wanted to see them.”
He pointed me in the right direction, and I power-walked in my flip-flops to the main stage area. Thousands of people were waiting in their lawn chairs. One of the roadies was making a final microphone check.
I admit I grinned at hearing Buck Dharma called by his birth name: Donald Roeser.
As I moved up from the back of the crowd, trying to find a spot where I wasn’t looking at the stage through a chain link fence, I noticed a “Fire of Unknown Origin tour” baseball jersey. While I was complimenting the concert shirt, I was secretly wondering if the high school or college-aged owner bought it on eBay. Just then, the band came on stage to music I bet Eric Bloom picked out: the theme from the popular television series “Game of Thrones.”
As soon as I heard the opening notes of “The Red and the Black,” I started getting caught up in the music and singing along. When a couple nearby started staring at me, I noticed that a lot of people around me were talking to each other and generally not paying much attention to the band. Perhaps it’s just another suburban community function or they hadn’t seen each other in some time. Well, I hadn’t seen BOC since the ‘90s, so I decided the natives would just have to abide. When the song was over, I yelled as I clapped, and got dirty looks from the neighbors, but my wife gets irritated when I yell at concerts, too.
“Thank you, people of Shawnee. Our next song is from the album Spectres,” Eric Bloom announced.
I couldn’t believe it; holy crap, they’re playing “The Golden Age of Leather!” This was too much. I moved closer, noticing that the crowd standing in front of the stage didn’t look too thick. I found a vantage point near stage left (within eyeshot of bass player Kasim Sulton), gob smacked they attempted this harmony-laden and intricate song for a live audience. It sounded great even with only the four voices onstage, compared to the multi-layered Beach Boys-like vocals recorded on the album.
As the song finished my heart sank as I discovered I was now standing near two young guys who had brought cowbells and were clanging along, probably hoping to hear “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” get their two minutes of fame for their cute pop culture knowledge, and then drive their parents’ car to this week’s hipster joint and load up on PBRs.
More and more it’s hard to find classic rock bands keeping their original members intact. Eric Bloom made a valid point to the audience that he and Buck Dharma had been playing together since 1969 in the band that would eventually become Blue Oyster Cult. And this early summer Saturday night they seemed to be playing to the audience with a wink and still not phoning in their performances.
Since the music industry has changed and record labels are putting out fewer albums from classic rock bands BOC has avoided the recording studio to focus solely on performing live. I think an element that’s kept the shows fresh still has been finding the right musicians to fill the gaps left when members depart.
One of the two young guys, newcomer guitarist/keyboardist Richie Castellano first surprised me with his fluid guitar solos during “Shooting Shark.” Unfortunately neither he nor Bloom handles the keys (Hammond organ-wise) as well as original member Alan Lanier did, but his health has kept him on the sidelines for years.
The other “kid” drummer Jules Radino - joining the band in 2004 with Castellano - kept the beat steady and showed off some crafty drum stick juggling during his solo spot in the middle of “Godzilla.”
That song also featured Kasim Sulton’s bass including snippets of songs by his past bandmates like Todd Rundgren, Joan Jett and Meatloaf. Sulton, the current heartthrob of the band, made a tsk tsk gesture at an avid fan who threw her bra onto the stage. It’s certainly one of the lighter songs in their set but it’s a crowd pleaser.
Eventually, the cowbell kids got so distracting that I passive-aggressively texted my wife, where they could see me, about how the show was great except for the audience percussion. They got the hint and cut it out for a few songs until…
Yep, that song. After hearing “The Vigil” and “Black Blade” (with a fantasy novel Cliffs Notes introduction for those who hadn’t read Michael Morcock’s Elric of Melniboné) live for the first time it was not that much of a spectacle hearing “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” Bloom and Dharma could have a love/hate relationship with the song but it’s what the people expect to hear. And the rhythm corps made the most of it, banging their cowbells like it was their divine calling. I think Dharma may have even nodded at them while playing that big solo. Shawnee, KS was on their feet and off their knees(!) with approval. After that the members left the stage for a short break before returning for an encore.
“Hot Rails to Hell” was a surprise choice and Richie Castellano did a commendable job singing the song while Bloom did some sweeping runs on his Gibson SG emblazoned with the band’s trademark Kronos logo. The song was a decent choice for a finale, proving that with some new blood this classic rock band is still vital and capable of delivering a good time even -- if they made that one song that people only know because it gave rock listeners “more cowbell.”