BLUE ÖYSTER CULT – 40th Anniversary Agents Of Fortune: Live 2016

A new deal with signed with Frontiers Records in the summer of 2019 quickly brought a bounty of archive treats for Blue Öyster Cult’s legion of followers. In January 2020, a welcome reissue of the very hard to find ‘Cult Classic’ disc of re-recordings made its way into the world, along with ‘Hard Rock Live – Cleveland 2016’, a double live gonzo that was well received by fans and press alike. Barely six weeks later, the equally elusive ‘Heaven Forbid’ album (originally released on the CMC label back in 1998) was given a timely reissue and the vaults were raided for yet another live set, this time focusing on their career defining ‘Agents of Fortune’ album.

The prosaically titled ’40th Anniversary Agents of Fortune’ was recorded at an invite-only industry event. As such, it has neither the broad scope of a typical BÖC live set from the era – that’s pretty much where the Cleveland 2016 set comes in – or convey a huge amount of genuine atmosphere. Any obvious atmosphere it might have had on the evening in question is curtailed further on the audio recording with the removal of audience noise wherever possible.

So, given a potentially flat performance with no real deviation from the original studio album (it’s even tackled chronologically) and a running time of barely forty minutes, why should you add this to your BÖC collection? The answer to that comes round about the mid point of the second track. After you get used to the sterile presentation and get past an especially bad rendition of ‘This Ain’t The Summer of Love’, from then on, BÖC appear to knock most of the performances for six, right up until the end of the record.

‘This Ain’t The Summer of Love’ opens the set with some particularly squawky vocals and a rather ragged approach, suggesting this might be a rare off night, but it’s just early teething problems as the band begin to hit their stride during ‘True Confessions’. What’s quickly clear here is that the live in the studio set up has been arranged in such a way that the vocals and bass dominate. Kasim Sulton’s heavy four stringed work is especially on point throughout, while an especially perfect sounding lead vocal accentuates BÖC’s poppier, AOR tendencies. Although still a reminder of one of the album’s best tracks, this take occasionally makes Buck and Bloom sound as if they’re helming a cruise ship band, but as anyone who’s seen the band live at any point between 2001-2016 will tell you, they’re pretty much back to being a well-oiled machine both vocally and musically.

The evergreen ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ is a natural highlight, and while the familiar musical arrangement stands firm, its best strengths come from the slightly more obvious live feel. The harmonies are never perfect, but always strong and the lead vocals are impassioned enough considering the thousand times this will have been played. It’s the lead guitar work that wins through, and although Buck doesn’t quite hit all of the right notes when the band launch into the instrumental break, it’s a nice reminder that this is a live recording, despite other factors doing their best to suck the atmosphere from the performance. Any flaws are slight, and as the rhythm section brings in the familiar heavy riff and the lead guitar begins to howl, his playing is absolutely fantastic. Moving back into the melodic part of the song, the harmonies are now stronger than before, the cowbell stabs relentlessly and the counter vocals are lovely – each element a reminder of why you continue to be drawn to this song, long after it could’ve sounded stale… [For an alternative, check out The Beautiful South’s Latin inspired take on the track from 2004].

A tough and mean ‘E.T.I (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)’ could almost be a studio take, if not for a slightly loud lead guitar sound – it’s definitely a highlight of this live set, despite being played absolutely straight – but it’s swiftly outshone by the moody ‘Revenge of Vera Gemini’ which gives a great showcase to the legendary Albert Bouchard, making a rare guest appearance with his old band on this night. He can clearly still cut it with the best of ’em, which is nice to hear. Between some flawless guitar work and the brief spoken intro from Patti Smith (sampled for completeness), it gives fans every reason to invest in this set.

Moving into the original album’s second half, Bouchard continues to lead as the band hammers through ‘Sinful Love’ in about as perfect a way they could manage at the time of recording, with finely honed backing vocals and more brilliant lead guitar work adding to the BÖC legacy.
The much rockier ‘Tattoo Vampire’ has some serious oomph thanks to a grubby guitar tone present throughout, and by this point there’s no question that the band are on good form. Leading into the number’s mid section of atmospheric widdling, Sulton shows once more how he’s both a masterful bass player and perfect fit for the band. By the time the last notes of this number hit, the memories of that version of ‘…Summer of Love’ have, thankfully, long faded. Returning to BÖC’s more AOR driven sound, ‘Morning Final’ allows for a little reflection. It might never be considered ‘Fortune’s best number, but this acts as a timely reminder that it’s actually home to a great 70s rock/pop mood, a decent solo and a pleasing hook. The version included here also provides a great variation on its studio counterpart since guitarist Richie Castallano steps up for a lead vocal. His voice is as good as anyone else’s in the band on this occasion and this is proof – if any were needed – that his contribution circa 2014 is as valid as anyone’s, regardless of how many BÖC classic line-up are present.

Pulling into the end of the set, the harmonies on ‘Tenderloin’ are occasionally a little wayward, but this possibly has a lot to do with it having been played in front of an audience only a couple of times before, despite being forty years old. Any vocal shortcomings are made up for by the most 70s keyboard sound Eric Bloom can muster. It’s understandable why this is so wobbly, but to be fair, it’s actually better than the opening ‘…Summer of Love’ – and BÖC had no excuse for that performance given how many times they’d played it since ’76. In closing, the melodic ‘Debbie Denise’ finishes this short set on a high, reminding those in the audience – and latterly those at home – of a band that are especially adept at multi-layered harmonies and a full scale AOR arrangement. It’ll never replace the studio version in your affections, but it’s great to hear the band are still able to deliver, both musically and vocally.

A DVD accompanying the CD edition features filmed footage of most of the performance (‘This Ain’t The Summer of Love’ is absent from the DVD edition). Naturally, this is no match for the 1978 film of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, but many fans will welcome any footage that temporarily brings Bouchard back into the fold. [A stand alone blu ray disc is also available.]

For something that initially felt atmosphere free, ’40th Anniversary Agents of Fortune’ is one of those live sets that really shows off what great musicians this particular BÖC line up can be. It doesn’t matter how many of the original performers aren’t there – this has enough strength and heart to celebrate the past more than effectively enough. For the long term, dyed in the wool Blue Öyster Cult fan, even though the show’s set up is a little sterile and very corporate, it’s a welcome collection filler.

March 2020