Sunday, May 31, 2015

burnin' for blue: Blue Öyster Cult, 22may2015, Slim's

For Noodles, who came in saying "I only know 'Don't Fear the Reaper'" and came out, I think, at least a Buck Dharma fan, if not a full-fledged Blue Öyster Cult fanatic.

Slim's is probably our least-favorite frequently visited venue in SF—its bizarro layout makes crowded shows really difficult to see/enjoy, and it's not all that convenient to anything in the city, so good luck getting dinner on the way, if you worked that day. The sound is usually okay, though, and it's just about the right size for the bigger bands I like, the ones who are squarely in the middle. Over the years, we've seen a post-hill Built to Spill there, as well as Big Business, Hot Snakes, Pissed Jeans, Red Sparowes...and other white men with guitars and a long history of making records.

Which leads us to BŐC.

I'd never seen them! They were one of my first favorite bands, having inherited my uncle's copy of their 1981 new wave classic (second-to) last-gasp effort Fire of Unknown Origin in around 1987 when he moved out at night after a falling out with my mother. (Having interviewed a couple rock stars about Blue Öyster Cult, I can confirm that essentially everybody's first experience with the band was mediated by an uncle.) In 1988, I bought Secret Treaties, which scared me a little—the vocals and themes of "Dominance and Submission" were a little much for me at 13!—and my first two copies of the record seemed to bring bummers, or, as I thought of them then, evils, into my life. The first tape was in my first Walkman the first time I took it to school and left it in a locker during basketball practice: it got stolen. The second time I took the record to school, I got suspended for not having reported seeing Aaron Krantz stealing money from a teacher's desk. This was a part of my middle school's innovative "Start Snitchin'" initiative.

(My defense—that I couldn't report him because I hadn't seen him do it and didn't know about or benefit from his thievery—didn't get me all that far. Recent events had included me getting busted for shoplifting a couple times, so the taint was upon me like the mark of doom upon Elric... My career of evil. I've told all these stories before, I know.)

But by the time I heard them on Rockline in 1988, promoting Imaginos, I awas already moving to a newly Ramones-centric musical aesthetic, and while I never stopped listening to BŐC, nor talking about them, they were for me more or less sonic comfort food, something I'd go back to, again and again, but something that seemed somehow of the past, not something I'd go see in the present. This idiot stance even had me skipping it when my friends' band played a show at Blue Öyster Cult's afterparty, somewhere in like 2003. Dumb, me.

Anyway, I saw that they were playing, I bought tickets without thinking about it, and I was glad to do so, because we live finite lives and it's never clear to me how many more chances I'll have to do the things I want to do. That was in 2014; I didn't get to use the tickets because the set happened while we were still on a plane back from Hawai'i. Worse things have happened. This time, when I saw the show pop up, I felt pretty about jumping on it: how many more chances will we really have, anyway?

The crowd was...not young. Nor was the venue particularly packed—which is a good thing, at Slim's. We got there just in time to see the opening band finish up, and were treated to quite a lot of Godzilla being projected on a screen that lowered in front of the stage while the roadies did their thing(s). I clocked the merch table and resolved to buy what I knew was going to be a thick, ill-fitting Haynes Beefy-T, because, damnit, why do I even have a job if I'm not going to buy shirts at shows? We posted up just left of center, behind just one thin layer of humanity, basically right in front of Eric.

Maybe because of Slim's sometimes-dodgy sound, maybe because we were too close for the P.A., maybe because of more depressing reasons, we couldn't really hear Eric very well all night, especially early. This was a colossal bummer for me, because, as I explained to Noodles about two-thirds of the way through the set, "I've always been an Eric man." She is solidly in the Buck Dharma camp, perhaps unsurprisingly, describing him at least once that night and later as "a very charming tiny man". The other three guys in the band were less notable, though the bass player Kasim Sulton was extremely charming and the drummer had heavy, heavy, fast hands and bore the distinction of being the only guy on stage not wearing actively embarrassing footwear. (This is sorta a hobby of mine, checking out what bands wear onstage footwise. This night included Chuck Taylors on the dummer, Toms (!) on the bass player, all-black New Balance cross-trainers on Eric, what I think were ankle boots on Buck and I can't even remember what the second guitarist had on...) But at this point, BŐC is completely a-charismatic on stage: while they go through their moves and routines, and while they're genuinely, fully committed to putting on a good show and entertaining the people in the audience, it's a bemused, professional, slightly impersonal commitment.

It's sounding like I didn't have a great time at the show. It was a solid B, especially given my history with the band, including decades of listening to them, two failed book pitches about them for 33 1/3, more than a dozen of their albums* in my crates and on my hard drives, and my general expectation that a live show be, like a Neurosis show, a legitimately transcendent event. I came in trying, and largely failing, to temper my expectations is what I'm saying, and the show I saw was solid. As the band has always known, execution counts for a lot in the genre, and they executed well all night long.

(My collection isn't quite as bodacious as my dude @eyenoise's, but it's pretty pretty close.)

Afterwards, Noodles mentioned "I thought they'd be more...rockin'. Not that it was a problem..." and that got at something pretty significant: what the crowd was there for was a whole lot of Buck Dharma, and, "Godzilla" aside, what Buck's great at is in general not a lot of rocking qua rocking. (The crowd popped surprisingly well for end-stage semi-hit "Dancin' in the Ruins", even, which blew my mind.) But Buck was great that night, with a lot of super-melodic, quick-fingered, extremely Buck-Dharma-esque solos, and a couple charming stage moves (including a weird I-don't-know-what hand gesture to the crowd at the end, which I would swear meant "yeah yeah shut up already" and an exaggerated slow-motion wide-legged stomp to indicate timing during a few songs). It was remarkable how little energy he seemed to be expending to be playing so well! I've never seen anything like that, I don't think. He seemed in good voice, what we could hear of it anyway, as opposed—maybe—to Eric, who for whatever reasons (PA? just doesn't have it anymore?) never pulled out the strident clarion that was always my favorite thing about his songs. Though I will admit that "Black Blade" sounded pretty great. (Upon reflection, I'm not convinced he sang any songs completely solo: everything seemed like either a Buck song or something he and Buck and often the rest of the guys were harmonizing on...)

The harmonies were good, the band was tight, probably tighter than the original five ever were, and the set list was mostly satisfying. There was a legit drum solo, which was okay, though a somewhat dated gesture, and while Bloom never deployed any of his old-style jive-talking patter, he did take the time to introduce "Black Blade" with a potted history of Michael Moorcock's fantasy anti-hero Elric (which Noodles found hilarious and impossible to take at all seriously), and he had a pretty good riff on the Rangers/Lightning series, punctuated with a muttered "I'm sure you all give a shit." that absolutely killed at least me, and probably pleased nobody else in attendance.

A craftsmanlike night, then. Five people demonstrating their skills in ways they had good reasons to believe the audience would enjoy. And they did it on their terms: as Eric pointed out, they do a different set every night; while they are absolutely going to play the "three hits", they're also going to play reasonably deep cuts, a nice antidote to turning into a nostalgia act. (It took me, embarrassingly, quite a while to figure out what the hell "The Vigil" was—I like that song fine, but for some reason, it just never stuck with me, and it was buried on the likeable but impossible-to-give-a-shit-about Mirrors. Anyway, enough excuses: clearly, I gotta listen to more BŐC.) This night, the band was light on the heavy/sinister, focused on the pop-songs-with-interesting-structures-and-a-lot-of-soloing, and amiably, thoroughly determined to give the crowd what they came to hear: only a churl could complain about this show.

And the shirt I bought? A lightweight, thin-weave shirt, more American Apparel than Haynes, and much higher-quality than I'd expected. A nice bonus. I've barely taken it off, since.

Track List

  1. The Red & the Black
  2. Burnin' for You
  3. Career of Evil
  4. Dancin' in the Ruins
  5. ME 262
  6. Buck's Boogie
  7. Black Blade
  8. The Vigil
  9. Then Came the Last Days in May
  10. Godzilla
  11. (Don't Fear) The Reaper
  12. Cities on Flame with Rock & Roll

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2 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Holly M. Wendt said...

I can only add "Astronomy" to "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" as the extent of my deeply limited Blue Öyster Cult knowledge, but this was an enjoyable read. As someone who feels generally rather disconnected from music, it's always cool to read the work of people who are very connected to it and who write about it well. Writing like this, particularly in the descriptions of the sound--what was present, what seemed to be missing--gets me to that thing I know I'm missing (as someone who doesn't hear music particularly well or recognize much of what I am hearing). And I appreciate that a lot.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Thanks, Holly! That we didn't get an "Astronomy" would of course be my biggest gripe (and is probably why I spent most of the next day listening to some of my many live versions of that most excellent tune.

And I really appreciate your kind words about the descriptions: I'm a dang amateur -- especially compared to the great Chris O'Leary, writer of Rebel Rebel and proprietor of the only blog that makes reading about Literally Every Single David Bowie Song a viable and exciting prospect -- but I'm trying to learn a little bit more and get a little bit better. I mean, I don't hear music very well either: last night at a Mountain Goats show, I heard the second verse of a song I've heard literally dozens of times for the first time, if that makes sense. But anyway, it's fun to try to keep the ol' attention-payer on and figure out what I'm hearing and how it might work and how I might feel about it, etc.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by!

11:42 AM  

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