||ALICE COOPER SEEMS LIKE HE'S EIGHTEEN AGAIN WHILE RICK WAKEMAN PUTS ON A WIZARD OF A PERFORMANCE AT STONE FREE
Produced by Liz Medhurst, Ian Sutherland, Danny Mattin, Sara Harding, Philip Welford with photos by Eric Duvet
The inaugural Stone Free Festival was looked forward to with huge anticipation here at MetalTalk and not just because of it being indoors in the warm and dry.
Holding it at the mighty O2 was a master stroke with its great transport links and facilities, and the bill was inspired as well. It was a festival of two halves with Saturday being rock inspired and Sunday all about the prog, but still with good variety on both days and definitely something for everyone.
With just a few teething problems to sort for next time, which were completely outside the control of the festival organisers and promoters, Stone Free Festival has crashed into the charts of essential festivals with a bang.
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The fastest rising star in the west, Jared James Nichols, opened up the festival and immediately set the standard incredibly high. The three piece power blues rock trio gave the audience a rousing early morning wake-up call with another commanding and dominating set. When we say "another", click here to see what we mean.
Jared and his boys played Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria-Gasteiz, northern Spain on the Friday night, left immediately for London and arrived at their hotel in the UK capital at 4.00am, just eight-and-a-half hours before they were due on stage at the O2 but nobody would have been able to tell because they set this stage alight and captivated everyone in attendance with their energy, drive and delivery. New single 'Don't You Try' featured, as well as a mountainous performance of 'Mississippi Queen'.
Unfortunately that audience was not the size it should have been due to organisational problems which left many who had turned up on time specially for Jared still waiting in queues to collect their tickets as he took to the stage but this will surely be the last year that Jared is scheduled to play at this ungodly hour. They are now the first ever band to play the very first Stone Free Festival and that can never change, however this will soon be overshadowed by far bigger things that are on the horizon. These boys are playin' for keeps - can you feel it?
Following this, the Indigo resounded to the classy soul and vintage inspired rock of Jackaman. Lynne Jackaman is the lady of small stature and huge voice who commanded the stage, pouring emotion and strength into every word.
Treating us to tracks from 'No Halo', Jackaman is sexy, stunning and every bit the star. She can belt it out with the best of them, and then change to a croon that melts your heart in the very next beat. The set was over all too quickly leaving many of us frantically checking out when the next opportunity is to see this remarkable band.
Saturday afternoon at a festie is never an easy slot to pull off but thank God (!) for The Virginmarys who blasted off the hangover cobwebs with a blistering punk rock set. Playing to a huge and varied demographic from kids to dad dancers to rock royalty this was an unapologising loud, brutal and raw set from the Macclesfield trio.
We're sure the tourists making the trek across the rooftop of the O2 could feel the vibrations rumbling out from this no-nonsense band. This is a trio that sound like a five piece with a huge wall of sound.
The setlist was a heady mix of old and new, with four ballsout new songs from their latest political punk album 'Divides'. The band steamed on stage with 'I Wanna Take You Home' and continued in an aural rock n' roll assault with Ally Dickaty's raw, rasping vocals and chopping guitar, Danny Dolan towering over his kit as he hammered beats out and Matt Rose driving the whole machine with his powerhouse bass lines.
This seven song set ended all too soon and as the last chords of 'Just A Ride' faded into the stratosphere, we were all left with a sense of having witnessed something biblical – Hail Mary for The Virginmarys.
A collective groan rang around the MetalTalk offices last week when The Lounge Kittens' new single, a cover of AC/DC's 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap', arrived however someone pressed play by mistake and suddenly we had a new sensation on our hands. You can have a proper listen to the single right here and it's well worth a few minutes of your time as it's refreshingly different and highly entertaining. It's totally definitive of the Kittens' style as well.
Shunted out into the foyer for a mid-afternoon slot, the ladies drew the biggest crowd seen in that area all weekend and they impressed as well with renditions, in their own very unique style of course, of Alice Cooper's 'Poison', Steel Panther's 'Gloryhole' complete with graphic and explicit lyrics, Metallica's 'Sad But True' and other popular songs with a twist - all in three part harmony.
The Lounge Kittens are an act well worth checking out as you won't find anything else like them. They're fun, quirky and memorable and on Saturday they certainly and deservedly increased their fan base. They're touring their forthcoming debut album in October and a fun night out is guaranteed for all.
It's a long time since the days of Hanoi Rocks but Michael Monroe, a man once described as "the most beautiful man in the world" is still a figure full of style and attitude on the Indigo stage.
Leading a band full of younger guns he has more energy than all of them and the packed venue loved all the sleazy rock and roll he put their way. By the time of the set closing anthem, 'Dead, Jail Or Rock And Roll', the fists were punching in the air and his job was done. Monroe may resemble a hair Metal pretty boy but underneath he is the real deal, an authentic out and out rocker and he showed it today.
Closing out the Indigo for the day saw Therapy? continue to rock the house with the drive and the punk/Metal anthems old and new that have ensured their survival though the decades, keeping them relevant and not relegated to nostalgia.
The doors to the main arena opened and Atlanta based Southern Rock heroes Blackberry Smoke put in an assured set with the only criticism being that it was too short. It's the start of their European tour so there is still chance to catch them this time round if you're quick.
It's an astonishing twenty years since Apocalyptica gave us 'Plays Metallica With Four Cellos' and we had three of those cellos on stage with a powerhouse drummer giving us Metalled-up versions of classics. It was dramatic, it was different and it was a lot of fun and showmanship.
There was a restlessness developing within the crowd by now, although it was hard to tell whether this was because the novelty was wearing off or because the penny had dropped that there was no re-entry to the arena, which meant that smokers and those who wanted a sit down meal had a choice to make.
The Darkness did their best to lighten up proceedings with their usual brand of flamboyance. They always evoke passion and strong opinions at both ends of the scale and tonight was no different, ensuring that they generated a lot of conversation.
Alice Cooper is guaranteed to pull a crowd for any festival and the old master did the business again on Saturday night. Cooper is the perfect heritage act. He always has a great band, puts on a great show and knows how to put together a set mixing the old, the very old and the new.
Tonight, beside the perennial favourites 'Poison' and 'School's Out', we get classics like 'I'm Eighteen' plus some deeper cuts from the seventies in 'Halo Of Flies' and 'Guilty'.
The band feature a three guitar fuelled powerhouse driving things on while up front Alice never fails to hold your attention. It shouldn't be possible for a 68-year-old man to have this much energy or somehow still be cool in a succession of outlandish outfits but it is and how!
Tonight the morality tale on stage ends with a beheading followed by the inevitable resurrection and a celebration of what Alice calls his Hollywood vampires and covers of, among others, Motörhead's 'Ace Of Spades' and Bowie's 'Suffragette City'. Bowie and Lemmy's names were immortalised in giant tombstones behind the stage, along with Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix in a unique and fitting tribute.
Not everyone could get away with playing a few covers like this in a headline set but not everyone is Alice Cooper. By the time he ends with a storming version of 'Elected', featuring a fight between extras dressed as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he has wowed his audience once more. Classic rock doesn't get any better or more relevant than this.
And so Sunday dawned, and after the high-octane charge of the previous twenty four hours we wondered if today was going to be a lot more sedate, especially as seating had duly appeared overnight on the arena floor. Thankfully there was plenty to get excited over.
Our early arrival was rewarded by the up and coming rockers Broken Witt Rebels impressing the foyer with energetic Southern-infused rock and showing exactly why there is such a buzz around this band. Keeping it real and rootsy, the Brummies transformed the cavernous space, drawing casual observers and converting them into new followers.
Cats In Space then opened the Indigo and what an opener it was. Like all cats, they do exactly as they please and thankfully it pleased them to give us a half hour set comprised of flawless 70s-tinged, swirly guitar with swooningly good harmonies, Glam-rock inspired, moog-tastic perfection.
Paul Manzi, the cat with the largest mane of all, poured out silky vocals as rich as double cream, while Greg Hart, Dean Howard, Jeff Brown, Steevi Bacon and Andy Stewart looked happier than any cats would be with an infinite supply of laser pens and boxes. This happiness spread out into the entire audience who boogied their way through tracks from 'Too Many Gods' and a blistering cover of Slade's 'How Does It Feel'.
As expected, today being the main prog day, there was an appearance of the weird and the wonderful which included Knifeworld. An eight-piece outfit, the instruments include multiple saxophones and even an occasional bassoon. Mixing those eclectic sounds with a mixture of progressive rock and psychedelic pop they are never less than interesting but might be the very definition of an acquired taste. We really enjoyed them and live they are certainly louder and more powerful than on album.
We also really like Haken's latest album 'Affinity', a nice modern prog homage to what has gone before in the genre. Musically they were excellent, reproducing their sound beautifully live. However, despite singer Ross Jennings' impossibly cool green and black shades they could do more to reach out and engage with their audience and really infuse their take on prog with their personality. Still a work in progress live, but some excellent music nonetheless.
It's always nice to check out the smaller stages at this kind of festival and with a break for a quiet pint at the Unsigned stage in the beer garden mid-afternoon, we managed to catch Goldbirds. With a nice line in lively rock/pop tunes they worked the acoustic set up well and in singer Si Connelly they had one of the best voices we heard all day. One to keep an eye on.
One of the biggest treats came at 4.00pm when Wilko Johnson took to the stage. Not only was it a joy to see the elder statesman and pioneer alive and well but he worked his magic in an explosive trio with Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe who gave a jazz-funk tinge to Johnson's famous choppy explosive guitar style.
With an audience of very mixed ages and tastes all showing their appreciation we wondered how many of the younger generation took in the magnitude and historical relevance of what they were seeing. Then we concluded that what was more relevant was the fact that this set was a complete success and we hope that Wilko continues to thrill us for many more gigs to come.
With the smaller stages now complete, the first act in the now all seated main arena was a symphony orchestra performing Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here'. Adding only a lead guitar player and a couple of singers it was interesting to hear how the Floyd's measured songwriting translated to the world of strings and woodwind.
It was the longer, gentler refrains of 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts 1&2' which worked best with those strings taking on Richard Wright's sweeping keyboards. The harsher edge of 'Have A Cigar' and 'Welcome To The Machine' didn't suit the format so well but of course the title track with its famous chorus went down best of all.
The symphony orchestra set up made this all feel very laid back indeed. It's a shame they couldn't manage to add some Floyd style visuals to the performance which might have given it some more vibrancy and power, but definitely a set worth seeing.
Steve Hackett displayed the inspiring virtuoso performance that he is known for. The powerful, complex tracks were overlaid with honeyed tones from that signature guitar sound and this was one occasion where the seats were justified as we may well have been swept off our feet anyway. From opener 'Every Day' to the stunning closer 'Firth Of Fifth', this was a performance head and shoulders above most modern day prog.
Steve mentioned that there had been no soundcheck, yet from where we were sitting the sound engineers did a top job as we were enveloped in layers of lush melody lines. Vocals from Nad Sylvan added an extra dimension, as did the energetic bass playing from Nick Beggs, all providing a heady and brilliant synergy.
Marillion delivered a truncated set but showed that they meant business right from the off with 'Invisible Man', which remains one of the best descriptions of an earth-bound spirit I have heard. Steve Rothery once more cemented his guitar god reputation with that guitar solo on 'Easter' and due to the occasion a trio of 'Misplaced Childhood' tracks – 'Kayleigh', 'Lavender' and 'Heart Of Lothian' appealed to the nostalgic.
Steve Hogarth was energetic as ever, climbing on the speaker banks and dancing furiously while never missing a beat vocally. The passion that he brings never diminishes with set closer 'Neverland' producing visible emotion in many of the audience. Even without a glitter cannon this song is truly unforgettable.
And so the time came for the finale and the roadies rushing to get the huge orchestra and choir set up in time, even while Marillion were taking their bows. For the first time since 1978 Rick Wakeman's 'The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur' was going to be performed, this time with added material to take it up to a full ninety minutes.
We will be publishing a full review of Rick's performance in the next few hours, but suffice to say it was a triumph with the man himself resplendent in emerald green wizard gear, as you see in our main image at the top of this page. From the quiet passages of solo piano to the full on bombast of orchestra, vocals and choir, this was a masterpiece which earned a well-deserved standing ovation.
And with that, the first ever Stone Free Festival came to a victorious end. With so much music to consume we haven't even mentioned the cinema, markets, comedy, interviews, quizzes etc that were going on – a cornucopia of entertainment that delighted and sent us back on our journey home already looking forward to next year.