Arriving at the O2 mid-afternoon for the inaugural Stone Free Festival proved a puzzling experience. Outside, billboards advertised the event but sonically the sounds of Rihanna were blasting from an adjacent retail outlet. Inside the concourse people were milling around, a small gathering taking in the closing moments of a performance on the Fireball Stage while others took advantage of cafes and bars. A vinyl record fair and a large merchandising stall were attracting customers, while band allegiance T-shirts were much in evidence. Holiday makers and shoppers mingled with rockers as small children gestured to their parents, clearly bemused by the occasional Alice Cooper clone.
The arrival of Dorje on the Fireball Stage curtailed liquid refreshments and a planned short stay to check them out became extended; this band were good. Playing a blend of forceful but melodic rock with some excellent guitar, the band seemed genuinely pleased and surprised that so many gathered and stayed to watch.
During the day the festival utilised performance areas in the concourse and Indigo Theatre before moving to the arena for the evening. Next stop was packed Indigo where Therapy? delivered a powerful set to an enthralled crowd mixing 90’s favourites from the Troublegum era with newer material. There was even room for some self-depreciative humour in an acknowledgement of "riffs borrowed." Thirty minutes in it was difficult to justify leaving but wanted to check out the much hyped The Lounge Kittens (they even had a large feature in the festival programme.) This was a mistake as whatever charms these fluorescent haired ladies possessed was lost on your reviewer.
First up in the arena were Blackberry Smoke, good old southern boys with a sound reminiscent of mid 1970’s Little Feat and Lynyrd Skynyrd with a dash of country. Playing to a sparse audience there was no doubting the bands musicianship. Of the genre these were decent songs but for anyone old enough to have witnessed the prowling stage presence of Ronnie Van Zandt this was more like an exercise in musical heritage than a vital live band who could move an audience.
The notion of engaging an audience was no problem for Apocalyptica. Three cellists and a drummer playing Metallica and other metal classics may seem a contradiction but these guys, with big riffs, swirling hair and dry ice bring real power and charisma to their performance. They may have been playing to a half empty arena but those at the front were fully in their thrall. The introduction of vocalist Franky Perez on some tracks brought an added dimension but at times diluted the intensity of the instrumental presence; who needs a vocalists when you can successfully get your audience to sing Master of Puppets! The set was a triumph in musical virtuosity and how to bring an audience to life.
Pantomime is a great British tradition and The Darkness must surely be the flagbearers for C21 Pantomime Rock. Arriving on stage 20 minutes late and playing a contracted set, their performance was a riot of entertainment. Justin Hawkins, disrobing to reveal a sequined jump suit, gave us self-depreciating ad libs, headstands with scissoring legs and even attempted mind reading, failing hilariously to guess names of audience members.
They opened with new song Barbarian, but the performance was dominated by material from the classic Permission to Land album, culminating with a euphoric mass singalong to I believe in a thing called love. The spark lit by Apocalyptica had burst into flames by the time the band walked off stage to demands for more! Darkness aficionados confidently proclaimed that this was the best live performance they had seen from the band for a long time.
The sparse audience for the early evening acts had begun to swell by the time that The Darkness took to the stage and continued to grow. There were queues and the entrances at 9 o’clock with many fans clearly just coming for the headliners.
Alice Cooper took to the stage in a black cloak with sparks cracking around him to the accompaniment of a Vincent Price intro. It was time to move from pantomime matinee to the Theatre of Horrors. We were treated to costume changes, pyrotechnics, knives, swords, stabbings, decapitation by guillotine, a giant Frankenstein monster, curvaceous rag dolls, a voluptuous facially disfigured nurse, two headed babies and Alice’s pet boa constrictor. Classics like No more Mr Nice Guy, Public Animal no9, and Billion Dollar Babies were rolled out early.
There was a stunning guitar solo from Nita Strauss as an introduction to Poison before things slowed down with an emotive rendition of Only Women Bleed, culminating in Alice stabbing the unfortunate “woman.” Guillotined for his crimes the ghoulish resurrected Alice introduced the audience to the “Hall of the Dead” as the set moved to another level with blistering versions of Pinball Wizard, Fire, Suffragette City and Ace of Spades. By this point the audience were in mass singalong mode, only for the atmosphere to be elevated further as Schools Out erupted, accompanied by giant balloons filled with confetti which burst over the crowd. Returning for an encore the show finished with Elected, prompting further singing and an added bonus of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton lookalikes wresting on stage.
This was a brilliant performance enhanced by theatricality and visuals but at its heart was a great band that not only had the moves to look good but musicianship to hold everything together.
The O2 was certainly not full but thousands of people left with large smiles on their faces. Stone Free without doubt has a place in the classic rock calendar, let’s hope that attendance was sufficient to justify a re-run in 2017.
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