Review: Stone Free Festival 2016

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Stone Free is not your average rock festival. Far from being the standard washout in a muddy field that springs to mind at the mention of the word, this event took over London’s O2 Arena complex for the weekend. Strangely however, all but the arena itself (and a few exclusive VIP areas) were open to the general public. The Entrance Stage, as the name would suggest, was positioned directly inside the main doors of the dome, so it was impossible for passers-by not to see (or indeed hear) the spectacle as it unfolded. Some stood and watched alongside the ticketholders, others hurried past with fingers lodged firmly in their ears. Children lingered to catch a glimpse of the rock and rollers as parents tried to coax them away. This welcome served as a fitting introduction to a weekend of unapologetically in-your-face rock and roll, showcasing some of the UK’s hottest up-and-coming talent. This included the eclectic mix of soul, afrobeat and doom metal offered up by London trio Vodun, who turned some heads with their Saturday set, and Brummie newbies Broken Witt Rebels on Sunday morning, who showed plenty of promise with their heartfelt, bluesy hard rock.

The other stage to host music during the first part of the day (the arena itself opened later in the afternoon) was in the Indigo club. Saturday began with Jared James Nichols, who, while not a familiar name to many there, did everything he could to kickstart the party. An attempt at crowd interaction fell flat due to the earliness of the hour and the lack of alcohol yet to be consumed, but the interplay between him and his band was solid, and their southern-tinged hard rock accompanied by the man’s guitar histrionics seemed more fitted to be played to packed out stadiums of cheering fans than a smattering of largely unenthusiastic onlookers. The response was much improved for The Virginmarys, who showed that the accolades they are being given by the press are well deserved with a blistering set of punk-laced rockers fit for the big leagues. The energy was turned up a notch by Michael Monroe, with the former Hanoi Rocks frontman refusing to act his age: climbing speakers, leaping around the stage, and keeping his tech on his feet by necessitating constant untangling of his mic cable. The odd tune from his former band was thrown in to satisfy the masses, but it was his more recent solo material that really stood out on the day. Northern Ireland’s Therapy? closed proceedings here for the day, and while slow to get the crowd going at full tilt, the likes of ‘Knives‘ and ‘Die Laughing‘ reminded us all why they were one of the most important bands to emerge from the British rock scene of the 90’s.

Once the arena doors finally opened, there was a little while longer to wait before Blackberry Smoke hit the stage. Frontman Charlie Starr eventually explained that they were ‘detained by customs at Heathrow’, but despite their tardiness and some early sound difficulties, the modern torchbearers of Southern Rock delivered one of the finest sets of the weekend. Apocalyptica were something of an odd fit on this bill, but then again, where would one normally schedule in a band made up of three cellists and a drummer who found their fame by playing Metallica covers? Many in attendance seemed initially confused at what they were witnessing, but by the time the Finns welcomed guest singer Franky Perez to join them for a few numbers they had captured the hearts of all but the most sceptical festivalgoers. Somewhat surprisingly, they succeeded in being the heaviest band of the weekend without featuring any guitars in their lineup. The downside to their appearance was that they overran by 15 minutes, meaning that The Darkness were cut short, to the disappointment of many. They made the most of the time they were given (but for mainman Justin Hawkins pausing to guess the names of members of the audience) with a collection of anthems that were custom-built for venues of this size. There was no time for fan favourite ‘Love On The Rocks With No Ice‘, but ‘One Way Ticket‘ and mega-hit ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love‘ got the whole arena jumping. Anticipation for the arrival of shock-rock legend Alice Cooper reached fever pitch as the sounds of Vincent Price’s monologue from ‘The Black Widow‘ began to emanate from the PA, and when the curtain dropped as the song began the O2 exploded into life once more. ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy‘ and ‘Poison‘ arrived early, and huge hits such as these sat comfortably alongside deeper cuts such as ‘Public Animal #9‘ and ‘Guilty‘. The songs are only half the story though, with a wide array of props (guillotines, rag dolls, a live snake) and characters (the infamous Nurse Rozetta, a giant Frankenstein’s creation doppelganger of Alice) completing the Alice Cooper experience. A series of covers paid tribute to his ‘dead, drunk friends’ and was topped off with a furious run through Motorhead‘s ‘Ace Of Spades‘, for which bassist Chuck Garric took over lead vocals. There was even an appearance from caricatures of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton during the encore of ‘Elected‘. If his politics are anything like his performance, it is safe to say that a vote for Alice would be a vote well cast. We’re not worthy!

There was a noticeable difference in the demographic of Sunday’s attendees, attributable to the distinct prog flavour of the day’s schedule compared to Saturday’s more traditional Classic Rock billing. The wonderfully named Cats In Space began proceedings on the Indigo stage, finishing with a cover of Slade‘s ‘How Does It Feel‘ that helped those gathered to warm up their voices for the rest of the day’s events. The prog gods were not smiling upon Knifeworld that day: frontman Tavus Korabi’s guitar strap broke early into their first song, which added to the pressure caused by a barely audible horn/bassoon section. However, they soldiered on and against the odds delivered a standout set with their mind-bending epics. Teeth Of The Sea stepped in at the eleventh hour to replace Messenger, who unfortunately had to pull out of the festival. Their pulsating electronic soundscapes were initially met with some reservations from those expecting the mellower, more traditional tones of the absent band. However, the more psychedelic tracks in their catalogue, and in particular the Gilmour-esque guitar atmospherics of Jimmy Martin, presented some familiar ground to which everyone could relate. Rising stars Haken were up next, and the growing crowd demonstrated their growing stature in these circles. Most of the day’s material was drawn from their recent ‘Affinity’ album, but ‘The Cockroach King‘, completed with its a cappella vocal counterpoint, was the choicest cut rolled out for the show. And now for something completely different! From intricate prog metal to back-to-basics rhythm and blues for the legendary Wilko Johnson. While some may recognise him as the silent but deadly Sir Ilyn Payne from Game Of Thrones, he came to remind us how he made a name for himself as a cult guitar icon back in the 70’s with Dr Feelgood. Now fronting his own band, many of his signature tunes from his former band were taken out for a spin. Some aspects of the performance were a little rough around the edges, but a closing double-whammy of ‘Back In The Night‘ and ‘She Does It Right‘ cemented this as a show to remember, and reminded us all how lucky we are to still have the man who was once told he had only months to live!

The atmosphere in the arena on Sunday was more akin to a classical concert than a rock festival, with rows of seats occupying the floor space that were used for standing room the previous night. Rather appropriate then that first item on the agenda was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Symphonic Live – a largely orchestral reworking of Floyd’s classic 1975 album. ‘Have A Cigar‘ lent itself particularly well to this format, though peculiarly there was apparently insufficient time for ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond‘ to get a proper look in. Steve Hackett then came out to liven things up with a crowd-pleasing set made up of mostly older solo hits alongside a number of tunes from his days in early prog titans Genesis, culminating in a spectacular ‘Firth Of Fifth‘. This set the mood nicely for Genesis-worshippers Marillion, whose performance can only be described as flawless. A medley of their mid-80’s hits (comprising ‘Kayleigh‘, ‘Lavender‘ and ‘Heart Of Lothian‘) got a somewhat rare outing, but it was their more recent material that shone through, such as the sublime ‘Power‘. The only criticism that could be aimed at their set is that it was over too soon. The changeover time between this and Rick Wakeman was surprisingly short given the scale of his entourage – an orchestra, choir, band, singers and even a narrator were all in tow for the first performance of a newly expanded version of ‘The Myths and Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table‘, and the first performance of this album at all since 1975! When the man himself strode out onto the stage in his trademark cape and took his place behind his bank of keyboards, there was rapturous applause before the hall fell quiet as the show began. While the quasi-historical swords-and-sorcery theme of the piece may not be to everyone’s taste, there was no denying the stunning beauty of the music being played. The new additions (intended for inclusion on the original release but denied due to the limitations of vinyl) complemented the familiar tracks well, almost doubling the length of the original and making the work feel truly complete at last. From the opening narration to the dying notes of ‘The Last Battle‘, it was a triumphant showing of immense musicianship and compositional skill from a man who rightly deserves his reputation as the grand keyboard wizard of prog rock. Now who else is excited for those Yes reunion shows next year?

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