Stone Free Festival - The O2 London
This is the first 'Stone Free Festival'. Our decision to go was based on the two 'one off' performances that were advertised. First was the only UK performance of Alice Cooper in 2016, and second was the world premier performance performance of the reworked Rick Wakeman classic The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table. There was a wide selection of music on both days, with two stages as well as the arena and a lounge offering alternative entertainment. Day 1 was primarily 'Rock', and Day 2 ran a more 'Progressive Rock' programme.
Saturday 18 June
The day opened in the Indigo Lounge in the Indigo O2. First up for us were Jackaman (7) This band first came to our attention when they were announced to play at Rockstock. Having now seen them live, we can say that Rockstock is in for a real treat. Wow Lynne Jackaman has got a strong voice! Their music has a soul/blues feel rather than heavy rock, but they gave a powerful and moving performance, with some tracks benefitting from the inclusion of the soulful sound of a saxophone. Their short set was very well received by the lunchtime crowd.
The Virginmarys (8) are from Macclesfield and were named 'Best Breakthrough Act' at the 2013 Classic Rock Awards. It is easy to see why. They were next up and couldn't have been more different. Their sound is what could be described as 'angry rock' and the three of them put all their energy into their music. Danny Dolan (Drums) is the sort of drummer that wants to be heard. If that means standing up to hit his drums a bit harder, then he isn't afraid to do that, even if causes his drum tech a few headaches!
It was then time for us to take our seats in the main arena for the nights packed agenda. First up were Blackberry Smoke (8), (no strangers to those of us here at MoM towers - Ed) who had flown in that day at the start of their UK tour. They were late on stage - apparently due to being held up at Heathrow. Despite the late start, they gave us a blistering set of Southern Rock including some of their better known tracks such as Six Ways To Sunday and Rock And Roll Again. This is the sort of music that, even when you are sitting down, your feet just want to join in. The audience really seemed to enjoy the music from these guys from Atlanta and gave them rapturous applause as they finished their set.
After a short break for a bite to eat, we retook our seats for Apocalyptica (7). I had been sceptical about this act - to me, cellos and rock music are poles apart. They are billed as a 'Finnish Cello Metal Band'. Imagine Metallica tracks being played on a cello. Not even gracefully seated, but energetic, unique, and off the scale. It was an amazing performance. Sometimes, its nice to be wrong!
The penultimate act of the evening was The Darkness (8). They are a band with a chequered history, having been on the UK and international rock scene since 1999 and with a string of hits behind them meant that they are bound to give us a great performance. The release of their album Last Of Our Kind in 2015 brought the band back into the limelight after a bit of a lull. We had last seen them at Rockstock in December where they had been heralded as hugely entertaining, and had performed a great set. This outing was no different. Justin Hawkins was on great form, as flamboyant as ever in his skin tight outfit complete with gold codpiece, engaging some members of the crowd in the way that only he can get away with.
Some people commented that if he had engaged in a little less banter with the front row, he would have been able to get another song in before timing got the better of them. Beginning their set with Barbarian and finishing with I Believe In A Thing Called Love gave us a great variety and, overall, they were great to see again. As The Darkness left the stage to rousing applause and cheering, the crew began to move quickly to prepare the stage for the highlight of the evening. To prevent the eagle eyed audience seeing what was going on, the customary shield was raised at the front of the stage.
After what seemed like hours, Alice Cooper (10) and his band came onto the stage through a curtain of fireworks. Ever the showman, we knew we were in for a real treat. Beginning with The Black Widow, Alice takes us through a string of his music, pausing only to allow his band to take centre stage in solos. Nita Strauss delights with her versatility and energy as she delivers blistering solos whilst striding round the stage and making it her own. Things calm down a little while Alice takes a seat on an upturned and battered trash can to sing Only Women Bleed only to kick it across the stage as soon as he is done. Alice is the only person to die on stage several times a night and everyone cheers his demise and resurrection - his band seemingly helping the sources of his death as part of the show. He also pays tribute to those lost to the rock world. While tombstones bearing the names of Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Lemmy appear at the back of the stage, he delivers a montage of Pinball Wizard, Fire, Suffragette City and Ace Of Spades. As he closes his set with Schools Out accompanied by the entire audience, there are cheers and demands for an encore. In the brief seconds the lights are down, the only song that could possibly follow that was Elected with the accompanying show parodying the upcoming US Election. Alice for president. He'd get our vote!
Sunday 19 June
After a restful night in our hotel, we returned to the O2 on Sunday morning. There were a few bands we wanted to see who were appearing on the Fireball Stage which was sited in the main foyer, just inside the entrance. Its position meant that bands would be seen, not only by Stone Free ticket holders, but also by members of the public who were at the O2 for any other reason.
First up were Broken Witt Rebels (8), a Birmingham based band with a blues rock sound. They are predicted to have a bright future, and if their performance at Stone Free is anything to go by, that is a prediction they are worthy of. They took a couple of tracks to settle down, but it wasn't long before Danny started to enjoy himself and he built a rapport with the crowd that had formed. The whole band were appreciative of the audience - many of whom had just stopped by to watch and listen as they delivered their original music with growing confidence. By the time they were finished, the cheers and claps confirmed their successful appearance.
The next band we were keen to see, also on the Fireball stage was Colour Of Noise (9). This is a superb band who we first had the pleasure of seeing at Steelhouse Festival in July 2015, and have seen them several times since. They have a great sound, with their influences in traditional rock and roll showing through. We were lucky enough to meet up with the guys later on for a chat. You can read about it here. Matt Mitchell has a great presence on stage and really draws in the audience. They began the set with You Only Call Me When You Want Something and followed it with perfect renditions of some of the great tracks from their debut album, including their single Can You Hear Me and my personal favourite Heavy to finish with. The small stage seemed cramped for them, as Bruce moved in to fill the spaces that Matt created as he shimmied his way round his small area. Colour Of Noise do not 'do' ballads. When they play, it is difficult, if not impossible, to resist the temptation to join in and dance. As always, they were a pleasure to watch.
We made our way into the arena for the main event which had already started when we arrived. We were seated in a different area, but the first thing that struck me was the arena floor. On Saturday night, it had been a sea of people dancing, singing and joining in with the musicians on the stage. By Sunday night, it was full of people again, but this time they were appreciating the progressive rock programme from the comfort and restraint of a fully seated arena. There would be no repeat of the crowd surfing antics of last night.
Steve Hackett (8) had already been on stage for a little while when we got in we had heard him performing a Genesis track as we entered. Steve is a talented guitarist we had seen a few months ago in Cardiff on his Acolyte To Wolflight tour, and he performed a few of the same tracks, some of which were his new music, others from his previous life as a member of Genesis. As always, we were impressed by the complexity that seems to be fairly standard in prog rock and the set closed with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
After a brief interval, we were looking forward to Marillion (6). As the lights went down they began their set with The Invisible Man, moving through other classics including Kayleigh, Lavender and finally finishing with Neverland. They had to cut the set short, as it was going to take some time to prepare the stage for the grand finale of the weekend. Again, the audience let them leave the stage with cheering and applause ringing in their ears.
The 'Main Event' was now preparing to take the stage. Rick Wakeman (7) released his concept album The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table in 1974 and has always dreamed of re-recording and performing an extended version. With the new album on the verge of being released, this was the first live performance and the realisation of a long held ambition. We'd met Rick earlier in the afternoon, and he'd certainly seemed to be looking forward to the performance. He was on great form, entertaining those who were lucky enough to meet him.
With Ian Lavender narrating, myths unfolded as the orchestra and choir brought the music to life. Rick had centre stage dressed in a regal cloak and he played his intricate music on a bank of keyboards. Taking us through births, marriages quests and deaths, the tempo changed from melodic and choral to fast and fun-filled expressing the different chapters of the legend. Rick finished and the crowd rose for a well deserved standing ovation.
The first inaugural Stone Free festival was overall a success, yes there were a few major kinks to be worked out as there always is with the debut of a festival, but I have no doubt that by next year things will run a lot smoother, well I hope so at least as there was much to be desired about this years organisation. However with a plethora of bands and distinctive feel on both days let's hope that Stone Free will continue to go from strength to strength. (It already has a benefit over many festivals by being all undercover so perfect for the British 'summer')