Blue Öyster Cult Plays to the Faithful, Skips the Cowbell at Slim's

Blue Öyster Cult at Slim's.
Blue Öyster Cult
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014

Better than: Will Ferrell's guest spot drumming with the Red Hot Chili Peppers during the Super Bowl halftime show. Wait, you mean that was Chad Smith?

The general populace may know the band best for a couple hits and one of Saturday Night Live's all-time great sketches, but cerebral '70s hard-rock outfit Blue Öyster Cult has given the world far more than the cowbell-banging radio staple "Don't Fear the Reaper." BÖC's collaborations with literate lyricists like punk poetess Patti Smith and science fiction author Michael Morcock matched fantastical themes with crunching riffs and catchy songwriting, earning the band millions in sales and a rabidly loyal following.

The group was obviously pulling more than just fans of the SNL cowbell sketch, judging from the full house of greybeard rockers gathered at Slim's on Saturday night. With an early start time (doors were at 6 p.m.) and a steep $50 ticket price, there was little question that the show was geared toward dedicated older BÖC heads than casual listeners. But instead of the expected biker dudes, the polite and well-behaved Cult loyalists seemed more like a pack of biker dads and granddads. Only a small minority of attendees under the age of 40 (and that included kids and teens brought to the show for a family rock outing) were visible among the BÖC veterans that filled the venue.

Surf-rock band the Deadlies were more notable for the blindingly bedazzled shirt being worn by their guitarist than the good-time covers the trio dealt out, but the gathered crowd seemed generally entertained by the six-string heroics on display. Still, it wasn't until the lights dimmed and the theme to Game of Thrones blared over the club sound system to play the headliner on that a real roar rose from the crowd.

BÖC founders Eric Bloom and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser took the stage with the rest of the band. The quintet kicked into the perfect opener for a San Francisco show, unleashing the menacing sing-along "This Ain't the Summer of Love" that immediately had the fans up front bobbing their heads and banging their fists. Looking and sounding years rather than decades removed from their '70s heyday, Bloom and Roeser sported wide grins below their omnipresent sunglasses as they chugged through the classic tune. Though he no longer wears the leisure suits that were the guitar wizard's unlikely wardrobe of choice during BÖC's heyday, Roeser's button-down shirt still made him look like a character from one of Martin Scorsese's gangster flicks decked out for a night on the town.

Bloom encouraged the audience to "raise their cans of beer up high" and sing along to the a capella intro for "Golden Age of Leather," though most couldn't come close to the harmonies hit by auxiliary guitarist/keyboardist Richie Castellano and journeyman bassist Kasim Sultan (who's toured extensively with Joan Jett, Todd Rundgren, and Meat Loaf). A surprising early appearance of the well-crafted hit "Burnin' For You" kept the crowd acting as the band's enthusiastic chorus.

While the crew I was hanging with was hoping the band would continue to travel back in time through the BÖC catalog, there was an initial detour into latter-era songs that treaded dangerously close to Miami Vice territory. "Dancin' in the Ruins" and the synth-heavy 1983 radio hit "Shooting Shark" were pleasant enough spotlights for Buck Dharma's songwriting craft and melodic guitar leads, but mentally, it was hard not to tick off the many older, heavier tunes that would have better maintained the early momentum.

The balance of the show shifted things back in the right direction as the group delved into a string of monster hits and album cuts that should be rock-radio staples. The debut album gem "Then Came the Last Days of May" and "Career of Evil" gave both Roeser and Castellano ample onstage dueling time, with Buck Dharma's skills winning out over his young disciple's chronic guitar face. After a stomping extended version of "Godzilla" that gave Sultan and drummer Jules Radino solo turns, main set closer "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" gave everyone who had been waiting patiently a chance to play their best air cowbell -- but amusingly, Radino pointedly avoided the song's signature percussion.

The whistling, clapping crowd brought the band back to the stage in short order for more Buck Dharma guitar fireworks on "Hot Rails to Hell" and a banging version of one of the unsung rock breakbeat jams, "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll." Despite the heat still coming off the stage as the band took its final bows, the aging audience didn't press for another encore and dutifully filed towards the exit to end the night. Bereft of such BÖC classics as "The Red & the Black," "Dominance and Submission," and "7 Screaming Diz-Busters" that would have elevated a thoroughly entertaining show to one for the ages, those who didn't have to rush to bed at 10:30 p.m. headed off find other adventures before calling it a night.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: I'd last seen the band in 2001 and was blown away by how vital the gems from the early '70s sounded when blasting from the stage at high volume. Back then, the crowd got treated to a much longer, more raucous 18-song set, so maybe BÖC is slowing down a bit.

Random Notebook Dump: "BÖC = the Steely Dan of '70s hard rock?"

This Ain't the Summer of Love
Golden Age of Leather
Burnin' for You
Dancin' in the Ruins
Shooting Shark
ME 262
Then Came the Last Days of May
Career of Evil
Godzilla (including medley of "I Love Rock and Roll," "Bang on the Drum All Day" and "Paradise By Dashboard Light" with bass solo and drum solo)
(Don't Fear) The Reaper
Hot Rails to Hell
Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll

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