A new indoor festival landed at London's O2 Arena which honours the music that started rock music as we know it today. Taking its name from the Jimi Hendrix Experience track, Stone Free conjures up visions of carefree days and 60s psychedelia. Musically at least it created this vibe. With its feet firmly planted in the rock/prog camp, the festival found itself appealing to a range of musical tastes and ages across the weekend.
Saturday's line-up saw Vodun liven up the Entrance Stage with their unique soul rock and The Virginmarys threw some thoughtful angst into the ring at the Indigo a vibe continued by Therapy? Sandwiched in the middle is ex-Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe, a natural performer and the ultimate rock peacock. Blackberry Smoke had the main arena warmed up with their smooth blend of country rock. Fire In The Hole and Ain't Much left Of Me top and tailed one of the most exciting sets of the weekend.
Apocalptica's classical metal/Metallica inspired music is certainly skilled. These guys play the cello as if they were electric guitars and have carved themselves a niche doing it, selling 4 million albums. The addition of a vocalist has given them a further layer to their music and prevent them from being a one trick pony. After a while, it all gets pretty unrestrained and there's only so much of it you can take, especially when they overrun and The Darkness have to cut short their set! Justin Hawkins and co have become one of rock good time bands, straddling the line between poking fun at the genre and being taking seriously at the same time. Their set was confident and energetic, cramming in as many songs as they could with Justin making it known that he was understandably pissed about the lack of time. Naturally, they finished their set with a guaranteed crowd pleaser, I Believe In A Thing Called Love.
As soon as they leave the stage the graveyard shift takes over - A skeleton crew descends onto the main stage to prepare a chamber of horrors for the legend that is Alice Cooper. The maestro of the macabre skulks onto the stage, enshrouded in a black cloak to sing The Black Widow before whipping off his cloak revealing a Beetlejuice pinstriped suit and launching into No More Mr Nice Guy. Rummaging around in his toy box periodically for wads of cash (Billion Dollar Babies) a snake (Is It My Body) and other accoutrements, Alice puts on one of the best shows around.
It's not just Alice who's playing to the crowd, drummer Glen Sobel pulls off a solo replete with spinning sticks in-between beats which would rival Tom Cruise's cocktail making abilities. Nita Strauss gives a seductive guitar solo and several suggestive yanks of her whammy bar later and most of the men in the audience are reduced to quivering wrecks. With a familiar opening chord, a leather jacket wearing Alice gives a nod to the Trash era for a terrific live version of Poison. The guillotine comes out for The Killer, a Nurse Ratched character taunts a straight jacketed Alice during The Ballad Of Dwight Fry and Feed My Frankenstein unleashes a behemoth onto the stage. It's all terribly schizophrenic as Alice relishes in showing us all the facets of his warped and brilliant personality as we lurch from one grotesque character to the next. School's Out finished a perfect set and an encore of Elected, complete with a punch up between Trump and Clinton rounded off a brilliantly bizarre evening of seamless theatre. A night with Alice is a pretty bloody good way to spend an evening, horror rock at its best.
Sunday's lineup is a total contrast and much more prog orientated and as a result attracted an older more subdued crowd. Cats In Space at the Indigo were a popular choice with their big pop rock melodies and the phenomenal Xander and The Peace Pirates wowed a crowd at the Entrance Stage, with many commenting that they should have been on a larger performance area.
Wish You Were Here gets an orchestral arrangement over on the main stage courtesy of Pink Floyd Symphonic. It works well in padding out the Floyd sound and the vocalists do the melody lines justice, even the guitar solos are accurate. However, it's a little too tame and it lacks the spontaneity of the original, even if the musicianship is first-rate. Haken (like bacon) over at the Indigo showcased their blend of prog and avant-garde jazz. These guys know their way around their instruments sideways and their music is diverse and different. Frank Zappa would be proud. Some here today had followed Wilko Johnson for 30 years, others came to see the man who cheated death. He's endlessly watchable as he shuffles across the stage playing his guitar like a machine gun. Even his sense of humour hasn't changed as he jokes when unsure of how long he has left to play, “once they told me I had ten months, now I've got twenty minutes!” Giving the grim reaper the slip has invigorated Wilko with a lust for life, he's obviously having a ball.
Steve Hackett is known as one of the founding members of Genesis and has the honour of being one of the UK's best guitarists, adept at playing prog, classical and a variety of other styles. He is also a bloody nice chap too. An all too short set featured tracks from his solo career, Every Day, A Tower Struck Down and Loving Sea followed by Genesis favourites, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Dance On A Volcano and Firth of Fifth. His set was by far the most accessible of Sunday's headliners. Marillion's frontman Steve Hogarth adds some histrionics to the festival as he writhes around on the stage in a living embodiment of the music. Populist tracks such as Lavender and Kayleigh are well received, but it's the set closer, Neverland that sees Hogarth putting in a particularly spellbinding performance.
Rick Wakeman's The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table has only ever been performed three times and the last time was in 1978. The original recording clocked in at just over 40 minutes, tonight Wakeman plays a heavily extended version which bordered on self-indulgent for anyone except die-hard prog and Wakeman fans.
A spoken prologue by the narrator, Ian Lavender creates a mystical atmosphere. A far cry from his Dad's Army days, Lavender is the perfect orator for Wakeman's opus. With an upbeat of conductor Guy Protheroe's baton, the orchestra is led into battle with the fantastical theme, Arthur, and our journey begins. Cocooned in a control room of synthesisers, Wakeman tinkles the Moog with a flurry of trills and keyboard runs. The two vocalists, Ashely Holt, who performed on the original and Hayley Sanderson are superb. Holt's ability to alternate between a high belting rock vocal and a classical tenor can only be admired and Sanderson brings some much needed feminine sensitivity to Guinevere's story.
Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight is still one of the most exciting parts of the symphony with captivating riffs and technical prowess. Merlin The Magician and Galahad add some musical diversity and help to loosen up the orchestra. There's no doubt that Wakeman is a highly skilled keyboard player and one of the finest musicians the UK has produced, but this extended mythological orchestral pomp and gets a bit tedious. In the end, it's a grandiose composition and is a terribly British affair.
For those who wanted to see the Wizard of prog hard at work, rather than just sit back and listen, it depended on where you were sitting. The staging and lack of video screens (a problem of the whole weekend) meant that a good proportion of the audience wouldn't be able to see him at all, which took away any connection.
Stone Free's music sure brought out the inner hippy rocker in us all, but an oversized aircraft hanger lacks the atmosphere of a fully fledged chill out fest in a field. Unlike other festivals held at the O2, namely the ever growing Country 2 Country, Stone free lacked the atmosphere, in part because there was so little going on outside the main arena. Stone Free may have had some great bands in the line-up, but there was so much more that could have been available apart from a vintage vinyl stall and collectable artwork. The advantage of having fewer stages is that you don't get so much overlap and you can see the acts perform, but the downside is that if you don't like whose performing, there's not much else happening to hold your interest. This indoor festival lark is certainly the best way to enjoy a varied musical line-up without getting covered in mud and pitching a tent, but for it to be a truly successful event, it needs to have more to offer. It's not just about the music, it's about the collective experience too, that's the real spirit of stone free.