Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
Somewhere during Honeymoon Suite’s closing set last Friday at Rock Ambleside, it hit me, as I looked about the audience: these are the people I went to high school with. The jocks with C’s in English. The guys more interested in cars than books, and the girls they fought over, sometimes quite literally. The stoners with the Led Zeppelin and AC/DC t-shirts who smoked up in the park down the street from the school and once threw rocks at the punk rock weirdo as he passed with the Exploited on his shitty Radio Shack tape deck (that being me, of course). They had lost some hair, expanded in the gut and/ or the ass, and probably had an average of three kids each now (and mortgages, and kidney stones, and type 2 diabetes, all the other accoutrements of middle age); but they were still recognizable as my people, whether I liked it or not.
(All photos not credited to Sharon Steele by Allan MacInnis)
I saw no one whom I actually knew – well, I mean, JJ from Scrape was at the festival, and at some point, notorious autograph-hound Gerald “Rattlehead” Yoshida (as well as Billy Hopeless, Graham Peat, ARGH!, and Sharon Steele), but none of them were from the class of 1986 at Maple Ridge Secondary. Regardless, the High School Reunion vibe was so strong I briefly even wondered if the guitarist from Honeymoon Suite, Derry Grehan, was an old classmate of mine. (He wasn’t).
Buck Dharma of the Blue Öyster Cult by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
As they sang along joyously to “Stay in the Line,” it was impossible not to feel fond of this audience, and weirdly at home, weirdly safe. No one was going to mosh into me and stomp my foot. No one was going to crowd surf and accidentally boot me in the head. None of the scenesters whose presence I have come to dread at punk rock gigs were here – the ones who, if they see me, latch on and jabber endlessly, their booze-laden spittle spackling my cheek as they lean in to be heard. It was… a comfortable vibe. About the only discomfort you could expect was for a beach ball to bounce off your head, as you stood in front of the stage: there were several of them being batted about by the crowd.
Crowd shot by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
When the biggest stressor you face is a rogue beach ball, you know you’re somewhere strikingly relaxing and pleasant. The bring-your-own-lawnchair policy made people responsible for their own little bit of turf, as long as they set up in a designated zone, which people did, quite civilly: no territorial squabbles were witnessed, and you were allowed to stash your chair overnight if you wanted to. There were beanbag tossing games (“that’s called cornhole,” my wife advised me). There was easy access to the beach and seawall out back, where the people who hadn’t paid to get in were having their own mini-Ambleside experience on the park benches. It had been a straightforward commute in, on the 257 bus (with the park a short walk from Park Royal Mall), and for drivers, there were a number of parking options (expensive if close, but free if you put some work into it and didn’t mind a short walk). The food trucks were reasonably priced and great (I focused on the perogie guy and the family-run Thai truck, with a small sampling of my wife’s poutine and caramel corn). There was even a White Spot pop-up shop, complete with tables and menus (no milkshakes, though). The liquor – sold at two locations on opposite sides of the camp - was a bit expensive, with two drinks and a tip running perilously close to $20; but there were also booths set up giving you free sample sips of Granville Island IPAs, or Social Lite coolers, which mixed vodka with flavoured, unsweetened sparkling water (the Grapefruit, the Pineapple/Mango, and the Strawberry were all very pleasant; I don’t really recommend the Lemon Cucumber Mint, unless you really like the taste of cukes, which dominates). The sample-dispensers – youthful and pretty - stamped your hand so that you couldn’t come back that day, but the stamps washed off easily enough once you got back home.
With all that booze, you’d figure (especially if you’re a veteran of rock concerts in Vancouver) that there would be at least one person during the weekend who got problematically sauced and had to be escorted out, but if that happened, I sure didn’t see it.
Even the bathrooms were well-set up – there was a men’s urinal tent, ringed on the inside with a trough, so that guys in the audience didn’t have to compete for the port-o-potties, and if you really don’t dig the port-o-potty experience, there was an actual public washroom attached to the restaurant on the beach out back. No lineups to pee were in evidence. I came away with the impression that Rock Ambleside is one of the best-organized, most creature-comfort-conscience rock festivals out there. They know the audience well, and know that when you’re our age, comfort counts…
Honeymoon Suite by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
And to return to that first evening: Honeymoon Suite was great. I was prepared to savage them – jotting notes as they took the stage that the singer Johnnie Dee looked like (sorry) a constipated Robyn Hitchcock, and remembering my punk rock snob loathing for them in their heyday – but the band knew their audience, and made them very happy with a seemingly endless string of hits, all but one of which I’d thought were by other bands. “Burning in Love” was Honeymoon Suite? “Feel It Again?” “Wave Babies?” I had written them off, previously, as a one hit wonder, only recalling “New Girl Now,” and rolling my eyes in skeptical anticipation of how badly they would suck. I was utterly chastened by how engaged and engaging they were. Of the acts at Ambleside, they had aged the least visibly, the least poorly, with Dee quipping at one point that the band doesn’t like change, and had stayed the same for 30 years. They proved decisively that a good performance by a band you have never cared about is way better than a mediocre performance by a band you once had some regard for.
Crowd shots by Sharon Steele, not to be reused without permission
Which brings us, sadly, to the Headpins. To their credit, their new members tried hard, with vocalist Katrina Lawrence zestily working the audience between songs and guitarist Tony Dellacroce doing a showy solo setpiece that reminded one of no less than Van Halen’s “Eruption.” It’s not their fault that they aren’t Darby Mills (who left the band for the last time, we presume, in 2016) and Brian MacLeod (who died in 1992).
But though the new members tried gamely, the whole thing still came across as a sort of, I dunno, alternative to golf for bassist Ab Bryant and drummer Bernie Aubin. Granted, they’re original members – their tenure in the band dating back at least to their massive CanCon hit, 1982’s Turn It Loud. But is seeing the bassist and drummer for the Headpins really the same thing as seeing the Headpins?
It was occasionally entertaining - it would be hard to mess up a song as good as "People," the first evidence at Ambleside of the enduring appeal of boogie rock, more on which later - but overall unconvincing. On the one hand, Ab Bryant should be commended for braving two bass solos during the band’s set – because there aren’t enough bass solos in the world - but on the other hand, someone take a note to him that bass solos, like drum solos, really need to justify their existence (the funkier one during the up-tempo “People” was pretty good, in fact, but that first one, earlier on… sheesh. Maybe he took the second because he realized that the first was lacking?).
Other bands at Ambleside have been touched by the death of members, especially Streetheart – who offered an enthusiastic performance, ending on a jammy cover of “Under My Thumb,” but whose new lead singer, Paul McNair (of Ambleside vets Harlequin), did not ever make you forget that Kenny Shields had died in the run up to the first Rock Ambleside, back in 2017. In fact, he offered plenty of gratitude and respect to Shields between songs, talking about how Streetheart had taken two years off out of respect for Shields. There was a sense of nice-guy humility to McNair and an unforced quality to his smile.
Streetheart brought to mind a moment during Midnight Oil’s Malkin Bowl appearance of a few years ago, when eagles flew over the crowd, to the delight of everyone in attendance, including Peter Garrett, who pointed at them in wonder. Streetheart drew a literal flying V of Canada geese, by contrast, and no one pointed at them at all: which seemed somewhat appropriate. The geese seemed a practical metaphor for the band – unremarked upon, taken for granted, but deeply and touchingly Canadian.
Quiet Riot, meantime - whose singer, Kevin DuBrow, passed in 2007, to be replaced (eventually) by American Idol contestant James Durbin – had nothing of Streetheart’s charm. Warming up the crowd for the Blue Öyster Cult, they were all obnoxious showmanship and, aside from Slade covers, some of the tritest cockrock-influenced hair metal imaginable. It was impossible to fairly review their performance when the songs were as lame and by-the-book as “Don’t Wanna Let You Go.”
Durbin – who looked more like he was acting in a Hollywood movie about being the lead singer of a metal band than actually fronting one – did have some inspired stage patter, however. At one point, he performed an experiment to gauge the demographics of the crowd. He began by asking the audience, “Is there anyone here who was born in the 1950’s?” A few people cheered, and Durbin replied, “Wow, that’s a lot more than we usually get. Thank you for not being offended. Is there anyone here born in the 1960’s?” He took it up to the present day, with the biggest cheers seeming to come from the 1970’s and 1980’s, though I suspect some people might have been celebrating these decades – let’s have a big cheer for the eighties! - more than actually having been born in them.
I had expected to enjoy Quiet Riot, since I like Slade, and I have nothing against “Bang Your Head,” their big original number… but no. I had expected to loathe Honeymoon Suite, since that was my official punk rock stance back in my teens, but no, that didn’t work out the way I’d thought, either. I had been interested in seeing the Headpins (since I like “Breaking Down,” which they didn’t play, and credit "People," as mentioned); but was disappointed, not even realizing that Mills was no longer with them until the day of the show. It was all getting a bit disorienting, but thankfully, there were several artists who delivered exactly what they promised, three of them inhabiting different variations of the blues: Pat Travers, Sass Jordan, and David Wilcox.
The most interesting question about Travers set was, would he or wouldn’t he omit “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights),” a song about beating up the girl who has dumped you. Originally recorded by Chicago bluesman LittleWalter in the 1950s, it is the song that got Travers the most radio play, and he himself has said on Facebook that its “title will probably be on my tomb stone.” But politically, it has aged poorly, and you could imagine some Me Too-era audiences getting upset over its inclusion (even ones who would have no objection to snortin’ whiskey and drinkin’ cocaine, the subject of another of his hits). That didn’t stop my demographic from singing along gamely, when he introduced it as “a little party song,” instructing the audience, in one of the weekend’s many call-and-response routines, “I’ll sing ‘boom boom,’ and you sing, ‘out go the lights!’”
Failed opportunities for introspection aside, none of that really matters, I suppose. The point of Travers’ set – opening the festival’s second day - was his wild-ass blues guitar, and his trio – I believe also including David Pastorius, nephew of Jaco – did exactly what they were supposed to do, jamming out with Travers, giving him the platform to have fun. He even had new songs for us, including an instrumental that I think he described as “Racing the Storm,” which was apt, since the first two days of the festival featured fairly heavy cloud cover, threatening to burst into rain at any moment.
(Sass Jordan by Allan MacInnis)
After Travers, Dean Hill of Rock 101 – one of a rotating cast of deejays who took on emcee duties - introduced Jordan as “the voice of Canadian blues rock that cannot be ignored,” and having seen her live, it’s easy to see why. Her radio hits, like “MakeYou a Believer,” wouldn’t necessarily lead you to expect a band as muscular and rockin’ as Jordan fronted, but her guitarist could have been in a metal band, and her drummer’s face went through an impressive range of tough guy snarls and scowls as he hit his kit, almost like he was trying to beat it up. Jordan was in fine voice and danced and smiled cheerfully, telling the audience she loved us; it seemed totally sincere and engaging, like she genuinely enjoyed what she was doing.
(Obligatory, if mirror-imaged, Ambleside selfie)
Similarly, the dependability of the blues was amply evidenced on day three by David Wilcox, whom I had ignored all my life up to Ambleside, to my loss. I don’t particularly care for “Layin’ Pipe,” his biggest single, but it turns out to be atypical of his music. In fact, most of his other songs are far more rooted in tradition: funny, upbeat blues boogie numbers like “The Grind,” “Bad Apple,” “Riverboat Fantasy,” “Do the Bearcat,” “Hypnotizin’ Boogie,” and others, all of which he expanded on live. His solos were so tuneful that the absence of a rhythm guitarist wasn’t even felt. And when it wasn’t merely funny – “when I say jump I want you to jump and not come down until the music starts again. Ready?” - even Wilcox’s stage patter showed just how deep the roots of his music go: at one point, he instructed his drummer “to shake us and break us and hang us on the wall,” riffing on a classic Charley Patton tune. There were no other bands at Ambleside who moved me to buy a CD, but Wilcox did (my wife and I have been listening to it this morning, one week after show, and it's just as fun as he was live).
Not everyone’s music, of course, can have the easy appeal of blues boogie. It became clear quite early on that Canadian progsters Saga were not playing to me, or even to the vast majority of people at Ambleside – since the crowd in front of the stage was much, much smaller than the vast horde who filled the space for Tom Cochrane, who followed. But that's not a bad thing, and the majority can take a flyer: Saga was playing to a small coterie of rabid fans who had not had a chance to see them in Vancouver since they opened for Rush at the Coliseum, perhaps on March 29th, 1980. (This was the subject of some conversation between the band and the audience, with vocalist Michael Sadler – who looked a bit like a kinky math teacher - flat out asking everybody when Saga had last played here, then shrugging, after a hundred different answers got shouted at the stage: “it doesn’t matter, we’re here now!”). After their hour long set, a hundred-or-so Saga devotees lined up to buy CDs (a double live greatest hits package, also on vinyl), t-shirts – I’m not sure any band short of the Blue Öyster Cult sold as many – and get their albums signed. It seems at least possible that a few new friendships were formed that way, since – as a bespectacled dude in a Saga shirt at the bus stop afterwards informed me – none of the Saga fans who gathered had had any idea, before the show, that there were so many other Saga fans in Vancouver!
Saga, with added Rattlehead bonus in bottom left, by Allan MacInnis. I should ask for his autograph!
All of which is fine and well – happy for them, and Saga do what they do just fine – evidence here - but I don’t care for prog rock, generally, even in its poppier manifestations ("not my thing," as David M. put it in his sendoff to Neal Peart awhile back). They would have been a great opening act for Rush, really, but I don’t listen to Rush, either.
Crowd shot by Sharon Steele, not to be reused without permission
One thing I had in common with some folks in the Saga crowd, however: I had no great desire to stick around for Tom Cochrane. I liked that he was playing his earlier material – his t-shirts promised a setlist that included “White Hot,” “Lunatic Fringe,” and other songs from the Red Rider years, which I enjoy much, much more than the sort of Springsteen/ Mellencamp-influenced “Canadiana” of his later years. It was nice that he included the early songs, and nice, too, that he acknowledged that it had all started, for him, in Vancouver. But I felt a single drop of rain on my face, as the band concluded their opening tune, “The Boy Inside the Man,” and decided it was a good time to beat the rush for the bus. Gerald Yoshida was at the stop, and two Saga guys now in matching t-shirts. Yoshida hadn’t gotten his Blue Öyster Cult stuff signed at that point (since they were playing in Saskatoon that second night; they didn’t arrive at Ambleside until about 4pm on day three, no doubt power-napping on the plane). But we chatted a bit. The Saga-shirt guys sat together. Maybe they'd just met that day?
Day Three began with another surprise: the Romantics were great. I had been skeptical, expecting a washed up 80’s band milking a couple hits, but it turns out that a) they have lots of fun originals that I had never heard before; b) that they amp things up a bit for their live show, making even their hits (“Talking in Your Sleep” and “What I Like About You” ) sound like real rock songs; c) and that they have plenty in common with other, more critically-lauded power pop bands like the Flamin’ Groovies. Songs like “Stone Pony” and “Tomboy” make me curious about their second album, 1980’s National Breakout, which I don’t recall coming across in record stores very often; alas, they didn’t have copies at the merch booth.
Then Quiet Riot took the stage, just in time for my wife and I to take dinner on the beach (where Graham Peat also took refuge, quipping to me later that he could still “feel the noize,” so to speak, pulsing from the distant stage); then the crowd gathered for the Blue Öyster Cult. Billy Hopeless had photos with founding members Eric Bloom (whom he had interviewed) and guitarist Buck Dharma. Yoshida had an appealingly improbable story of how he got his stuff signed, involving a search for a bathroom - yeah right - followed by a chance encounter with Buck and Eric, and a skeptical tour manager who tried to ward him off (“that’s one of those eBayers!”/ “no, man, I’m a fan!”). He got his Stalk-Forrest Group album scribbled on, though, so I’m jealous. Cartoonist ARGH! (of DOA colouring book and NO FUN cassette-cover fame) had stories about having seen the band before, at a legendary 1974 show at the Coliseum where the BÖC, by all accounts, blew T-Rex off the stage (that’s where the Vancouver cuts for On Your Feet or On Your Knees were recorded, by the by, though no one, it seems, can figure out which songs they were on that album. Billy Hopeless asked Eric Bloom, and even he didn’t know. )
In honesty, great as they are, the Blue Öyster Cult have never seemed to be about showmanship. They look, for the most part, like pretty average guys, with absolutely none of the hollow theatrical flashiness that Quiet Riot had personified. It’s hard to imagine anyone equally enjoying the set and Quiet Riot’s, or to conceive a pairing more antithetical. As ever, we imagine, the appeal is the songwriting and the musicianship, both of which are amazing, but at times almost understated, with layers you may not even notice for years. It takes a really deep vein of richness to make it possible for a song like "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" to keep its freshness after so many years, when songs with a similar classic rock stature, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," or the Eagles' "Hotel California" can make a person of taste run screaming to turn off the radio (none of them are bad songs, just massively over-exposed).
Blue Öyster Cult by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
Their set began with a couple of numbers off two of their less successful (but still Columbia-era) albums, “Dr. Music” (off Mirrors) and “The Golden Age of Leather” (off Spectres). Comparable to “Transmaniacon MC” in lyrics, that latter tune involves a bike gang on the way to some figurative Valhalla, and starts with a singalong that invites audience members to raise their “can of beer on high,” and acknowledge that “our best years have passed us by.” For any band at Ambleside – especially a band whose founding members are in their 70’s, performing to an audience mostly in their 50’s – that’s a brave and funny lyric to invite audiences to sing along to; but our cans went up no less.
Blue Öyster Cult by Sharon Steele, Aug. 18 2019, not to be reused withut permission
It disappointed me a little that the whoops and cheers got much more vocal when the band broke out their big 80’s hit, “Burning For You.” (Ditto, of course, for "The Reaper," at the end of the main set). It’s a fine, fun song, but jeez, my fellow audinece members, a) "Burnin' for You" is small potatoes compared to "ME262," and b) it’s too obvious to cheer just the hits! I liked the guy who, by contrast, whooped loudly when the band played “Harvest Moon,” off their neglected, highly entertaining 1998 album – their first studio album after being dumped by Columbia - Heaven Forbid.
Oh, who am I fooling: I am the guy who whooped loudly when the band played “Harvest Moon.”
At this point, 47 years into their history, if you don’t count the Soft White Underbelly or the Stalk Forrest Group - the BÖC – “on tour forever,” as their t-shirts proclaim – have the must-plays on their setlist down to an art. They pretty much always touch on certain songs: “ETI,” “Tattoo Vampire,” “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Cities on Flame,” and “Godzilla” (I had been curious to see f they still toured with a giant, moving, smoke-emitting Godzilla head, which they’d had with them at the Coliseum when I last saw them, back in 1982. They do not, or at least didn’t pack it on the flight from Saskatoon). The question was, which songs they would touch on from the rest of their lengthy catalogue, which they seem to change up from time to time. Besides “Harvest Moon,” the variables at Ambleside were “ME262” and “Career of Evil” (featuring that delightful unrhymed couplet, “I’ll spend your ransom money/ but still, I’ll keep your sheep”), and their UFO-themed “The Vigil” (that's a link to a live clip I shot; it's arguably the best song on Mirrors, only getting competition on that album from Allen Lanier’s “In Thee”). It would have been nice for Tyranny and Mutation, Cultosaurus Erectus, Imaginos, and Curse of the Hidden Mirror to be represented – all fine and fascinating albums, which, truth be known, I prefer to Spectres and Mirrors (which got two or three songs each!) – but hell, I felt lucky to be seeing them at all.
The high point of their show was “Then Came the Last Days of May,” Buck Dharma’s tale of a drug deal gone bad, based on something that happened to schoolmates of his. The slowest song off their 1972 debut, there are fairly representative live clips on Youtube, even if they aren't from Ambleside. The song has emerged as the real high point of their set, since it opens up into a ten-minute-or-more-long platform for astonishingly deft guitar solos, not just from Dharma but also Richie Castellano. A musician in his own right – you can read about his history and other projects on his official site - Casetellano fills in for the late Allen Lanier’s role and occasionally trades places with Eric Bloom, playing the more robust second guitar parts and occasionally taking leads. Castellano’s solo during “Then Came the Last Days of May” was every bit as memorable and intense as Dharma’s, maybe in part because we weren’t expecting it.
Allen Lanier and Buck Dharma, Vancouver 1982, by bev davies. I was there!
Back in 1982, as I recall it, when I caught the band at the Coliseum with Aldo Nova opening, it was Eric Bloom who took most of the vocals and seemed the leader of the band; at Ambleside, the majority of lead vocals seemed to be Dharma’s, and when Bloom did take a song – “Cities on Flame,” for instance, which closed the show – he sang well, but seemed maybe a bit less robust than he had in the 1980’s. Any 74 year old who flies from Saskatoon to Vancouver to play a rock concert has the right to be a bit pooped - I mean, hell, I'm 51, and it's a chore to make the basement to change the laundry over - but you have to wonder if he (or Dharma) have contemplated retirement, after decades of pretty much ceaseless touring. (On Tour Forever, their current t-shirt reads, with a note that it's their 47th year).
Fans can only hope that – with a new album in the works, a new label on board, and plans for a host of reissues and live albums – the Blue Öyster Cult decides to keep touring at least until their 50th anniversary (three years from now!), and that Vancouver audiences will get a chance to see them again.
If it happens to be at Ambleside, I won’t complain!
For information about the Rock Ambleside festival 2020, or about past shows, see their official site!