November 29, 2023

…the quality of Blue Öyster Cult’s music remains undimmed after all these years and this package really is a perfect anniversary celebration, or I should say: the first of three perfect anniversary celebrations. Blue Öyster Cult fans have a lot to enjoy here and a lot to look forward to!

Blue Öyster Cult have produced some of the finest heavy rock music to come out of the United States, influencing both hard rock acts that followed and the occult and stoner rock movements. So, celebrating their 50th anniversary is something that should be done in style.  But ‘the 50th anniversary of what?’ you might ask. The band was formed back in 1967, going originally by the name of Soft White Underbelly, while their self-titled debut album took until 1972 to emerge. The live concert in question was recorded in September 2022 at the Sony Hall in New York City, thus marking the 50th anniversary of that debut vinyl, and to mark the occasion they played the full album end to end. But, the band didn’t stop there. They played three consecutive nights at the Sony Hall, with the sophomore album Tyranny And Mutation getting the full works on the second night, and their third, Secret Treaties, the same treatment on the final night. So, over three nights they laid the groundwork for three 50th anniversary releases and that’s why this release is marked ‘First Night’.

The original black and white album cover, cleverly reflected in the colour version for this release

Adding to the sense of a real event, former member Albert Bouchard joined the band for these gigs which meant that along with the duo of Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma (who have been in Blue Öyster Cult every minute of those fifty years), three fifths of the original line-up was present. That’s impressive compared to the tired groups hanging on to their name thanks to one surviving band member (and in some cases none…). The other three current band members – Richie Castellano (Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals), Danny Miranda (Bass, Vocals) and Jules Radino (Drums) have now been in the band for the best part of two decades, creating the most stable line-up in the group’s history.

The two CDs are divided just like the actual concert with the first part consisting of the debut album, played in the same running order, and the second part containing a selection from the rest of their career. Transmaniacon MC therefore is the first track and it’s a great concert opener and a classic Cult song delivered with all the tightness and grittiness of half a century ago. In the same vein is I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep, not one of their best-known cuts but rediscovering the quality of pieces such as this adds to the fun of this type of retrospective. These two songs are also a good demonstration of how well Eric Bloom’s inimitable voice has stood the test of time.

Playing a whole album raises the question of whether it’s best to play the songs identically or to vary things along the way. Blue Öyster Cult went for mostly the former with the exception being in the two most famous songs from this album: Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll and Then Came The Last Days Of May (they liked long titles!). Cities On Flame is extended by a minute or so with some crowd participation but Then Came The Last Days Of May stretches out to almost eight minutes but to these ears the lengthy upbeat solo is technically outstanding but undermines slightly the dreamy melancholic mood of the main song.

It’s interesting to note the different styles – there’s a clear distinction between the hard rock sound that would become the group’s signature style and the early psychedelic/experimental roots of the band. The middle trio of songs – Before The Kiss A Redcap, Screams and She’s As Beautiful As A Foot have strong elements from the latter category. Screams was actually another surprise highlight to these ears – I’d forgotten myself what a brilliant groovy riff it is based around!

That first part of the concert is a reminder of the surprisingly consistent quality of the debut album. The second part (on the second CD) consists of fourteen songs from the rest of their career. At this point, we don’t know what was played on the second and third evenings but there’s something of an imbalance with half the tracks coming from two albums – four tracks from The Symbol Remains and three from Mirrors. Now, The Symbol Remains was their latest release (in 2020), so you can understand the band wanting to play recent and fresh material but Train True (Lennie’s Song) and Box In My Head are not great live songs, and Tainted Blood lacked the bite of the excellent studio version. This was offset partially by a blistering version of That Was Me which shows the band are still more than capable of writing a brilliant tune. Mirrors is generally considered the point of decline after a series of classic albums and that’s sort of reflected in the three pieces chosen, especially Dr. Music. That song I would put in the same category as Black Sabbath’s Rock ’n’ Roll Doctor – something played live frequently despite being quite awful!

Looking for more famous songs? Well, the infectious pop anthem Burnin’ For You is well-played, Godzilla is suitably weighty and they avoid over-rushing (Don’t Fear) The Reaper which results in possibly the best live version of this song I’ve heard. Hot Rails To Hell was a good rowdy way to close the show too. Fans of Secret Treaties (everyone, right?) only got Career Of Evil so will have to patiently wait for the Third Night release.

Everything is also available visually on DVD in the deluxe edition, so you get to see how Eric Bloom still manages to look cool in sunglasses and leather jacket! Older fans like me, who saw the band live in the ‘70s, might prefer just listening to the CDs though. After all, this is the band that demanded that we were on our feet or on our knees, and we obeyed them as they happily damaged our eyes with lasers. At the Sony Hall, the audience was very appreciative but sat around at their tables with their drinks as if in a jazz club. No real lightshow to speak of and certainly no lasers. Still, the quality of Blue Öyster Cult’s music remains undimmed after all these years and this package really is a perfect anniversary celebration, or I should say: the first of three perfect anniversary celebrations. Blue Öyster Cult fans have a lot to enjoy here and a lot to look forward to!