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Blue Öyster Cult

Live at Milwaukee Summerfest, July 2022

Review by Mike Korn

Time stands still for no one, not even Blue Öyster Cult. This band and I go back a very long way, and I have seen them play live more than any other band. The first time was 1979 on the Mirrors tour. That was 43 years ago. To be brutally frank, the band is not the same now as it was then, but then again, neither am I. Back then, I could run up “The Hill” at Alpine Valley where I first saw them...now they’d have to put me in an oxygen tent by the time I got to the top.


And Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma, the core members of the Cult, are a good deal older than I am. So I went into this 2022 show with no expectation to see the hell-raising band of the 70s. But nostalgia is a powerful cure for diminished expectations. And that was in full bloom on this pleasant summer evening at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, one of the world’s biggest music festivals. This was my first time ever at the humongous event, and I went with two high school buddies, including one I hadn’t seen in 30 years. So yes, the warm scent of nostalgia was wafting over the Milwaukee lakeside on this fine evening. We actually got in fairly easily and while the crowd was considerable, it was never packed tight. You could navigate pretty easily. The band was playing at the Uline Stage.


By the time the Cult hit the stage, the crowd stretched all the way back to the lake. There were lots of old-timers in the crowd like me, but some younger faces, too, which is always nice to see. There seemed to be a delay in the show starting, and I wonder if that might have cost us a couple of songs. Everybody was raring to go when they finally came on at the atypical time of a quarter to four.


The opening song was “Dr. Music," which used to be played a lot on FM radio in the 70s. Honestly, the band seemed very tentative and almost tepid during this opening song and for sure Eric and Buck are showing their age. I got the feeling they were warming up and indeed, as the show progressed, it gained strength. The second track “Before The Kiss” (A Redcap) dated back all the way to their first album. One thing that never changes with BÖC is the amazing guitar skills of Buck Dharma. On both vocals and guitars, he was as sharp as he ever was and better was to come later on.


Before “The Golden Age of Leather," the band urged the crowd to raise their beers and sing the opening refrain of the song. The irony should not have escaped any long time fan of the band. The tune is about aging bikers gathering in the deep desert for one last party and rumble before they are swallowed by the sands of time. The band themselves have become the bikers now, and so have I and a lot of the audience. As for the song itself, it’s quite the mini-epic, with constantly shifting atmosphere and riffs. It's a deep cut from the Spectres album with plenty of relevance.

By that point, I had checked out the “new” members of the band, some of whom have been in it for ten years. Danny Miranda the bass player was a pretty steady hand throughout the gig, but drummer Jules Randino just can’t replace Albert Bouchard and Rick Downey, the previous well-known sticksmen. He’s not terrible by any stretch, but I’ve seen BÖC about 13 times live since 1979, and he just doesn’t have the fire of those two previous gentleman. On the other hand, Richie Castellano, the newest member, is a great addition who gives the band the energy of youth as well as being a multi-talented player who can sing, play keyboards and shred the axe with a vengeance, a talent he later demonstrated in full.


“That Was Me” was a cut from the band’s latest album The Symbol Remains, a kind of sequel to the song “Career of Evil” with something of the same feel to it. After this, the concert started to turn a corner as the band picked up energy, and the crowd did, too. “Burnin’ For You” is one of their great anthems and one of the songs that probably most people were there to see. The boys could have given it a perfunctory run-through as they’ve played it a billion times, but this version seemed to have a special energy to it and Dharma was again faultless on both guitar and vocals. Naturally it lit a flame in the crowd, one which lasted the rest of the show.


“Harvest Moon” from the deeply underrated album Heaven Forbid followed next, and I always thought the song was a spiritual brother to “Don’t Fear The Reaper." It has a spooky kind of Gothic tone, with plenty of melody and dark lyrics. The crowd reacted to it strongly, and I sense that this track, much like “Take Me Away”, has become a “cult” favorite, pun intended.


I mentioned to one of my buddies that it sure would be nice if the band played “E.T.I.” tonight. Ask and ye shall receive, as the telltale crunchy riffs of this favorite filled the air immediately thereafter. I always loved this song and, although the best live version will always be the one I saw in 84 with full use of lasers and fog, this remains a beloved Cult song.


They went to another track from the latest album, but it was one I would not have expected. I was kind of hoping they’d do “The Alchemist," which is a great song, but instead we got the whimsical “Train True” (Lennie’s Song), a Buck Dharma special with a snappy pace and a great bit of rapid fire lyrical work from Dharma. There was a lady with a blond Mohawk who was upfront doing sign language for each song and she just about collapsed trying to keep up with the machine gun lyrical flow to this one. This song showed the more light-hearted, poppy side to the band.


They dipped back into their first album for “Then Came The Last Days of May,” and this was the absolute show-stopper of the set. This was easily the best version of this mournful, bluesy song that I’ve ever seen, and I doubt if they could have played it better in 1972. Most of the song is slow and sad, but there’s an extended solo section in the middle and Richie Castellano stepped forward on lead guitar and unleashed a sizzling burst of pyrotechnical soloing that had the crowd roaring in approval. He was amazing, but the band wasn’t done, as Dharma said “hold my beer” and laid into his own killer axe shredding. Nobody is going to show this guy up! Finally, they returned to the original tempo to end the song, but everybody in the crowd was on their feet for this fantastic exhibition of hard rock prowess.


Eric said “I hear something big coming out of the lake!” and we all knew who and what was next. No matter how many times I hear “Godzilla," it always brings a smile to my face, and the crowd ate this up with a spoon. There was no extended bass or drum solo as the band usually did in the past during this song, maybe another sign that the years are catching up. No, we didn’t get the actual giant monster roaring and spitting smoke behind the drum kit, but the song sure went over well.


The next song was as predictable as the sun coming up in the East, “Don’t Fear The Reaper." This has never been my favorite Cult song, but it is a track that transcends even the band itself, and I’m guessing most of the big crowd had gathered purely to hear and sing along with this track. They weren’t disappointed here, and I must say that the vocals of all the band members still harmonize sublimely on this song, with everybody getting into the act.


That was technically the end of the show, but they did manage to come back and sure enough, it was “Cities On Flame” (With Rock N Roll), the first BÖC hit. There was a great jam with four guitarists creating a wall of sound, but damn, I sure miss Albert Bouchard on vocals and drums for this classic. That was his signature song for sure. We had a rousing climax and the band bid farewell.


Expectations have to be reasonable when seeing a band that’s been around this long. I knew we weren’t going to get much more than an hour and 15 minutes out of them. As with any band with such a lengthy discography, there’s always a ton of songs they could have played...I would have loved to hear “Black Blade,"“Hot Rails To Hell” and “Joan Crawford” myself, but hey, you can’t have it all. I would have also loved to see Eric ride the Harley out on stage for “Born To Be Wild," especially in Milwaukee, home to the biggest Harley factory, but it was not to be. I remember the Blue Öyster Cult of 1984, and that’s the band I really wanted to see, but it’s 2022 and this is the Cult we have. When they are on point, they’re still pretty damn good and that’s nothing to sneeze at.


This review is available in book (paperback and hardcover) form in Music Street Journal: 2022  Volume 4. More information and purchase links can be found at: garyhillauthor.com/Music-Street-Journal-2022.

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