On June 18, the first-ever Stone Free festival kicked off at London’s O2 Arena for two days of rock, prog, live interviews, film screenings and gigantic inflatable creatures from the deep – all under one roof.
Here’s what we learned during those packed 48 hours.
SATURDAY, JUNE 18
There is no mud at the O2.
Food courts are great. Festivals are supposed to be hard work, but here we were able to sneak out halfway through Jared James Nichols axe-wrangling half-hour for a cheeky Nando’s, follow it up by picking up an original vinyl copy of Mallard’s debut album from the record fair, and were still able to return to Indigo before Jackaman’s electric set had fizzed its giddy way to a climax.
Blackberry Smoke are a great Led Zeppelin covers band. They’ve always done Zep, but the casual way in which they slip Your Time Is Gonna Come into their own Sleeping Dogs demonstrates the comfort they feel handling this material, and the growing confidence they have in their own songs.
The Stone Free organisers must have employed someone with a fantastic lung capacity. In the main arena, there was a psychedelic octopus inflatable and two silvery alien-like ladies lying across the back of the main arena, like tired versions of AC/DC’s gregarious pal, Rose. Elsewhere, there was a 50-foot inflatable guitar which appears to have floated away.
The Darkness’ frontman Justin Hawkins is clairvoyant, kind of. Several times during a knockabout set he singles out a person in the crowd and guesses their name. “It’s from the first half of the alphabet, right? Is it Michael? No? Liam? Kenny? No? James? Jonathan? John? No? Josh! It’s Josh! How on earth did I do that?” He also claims that their set has been cut short because Apocalyptica overran by 15 minutes.
Clairvoyancy aside, The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins and his brother Dan can do the best Rod Hull and Emu impression this side of the 1980s. What started as a discussion about emo during a Permission To Land exclusive playback session morphed into a full-blown, ad-libbed song between the pair about “sticking by each other”. A beautiful tribute to the late bird handler.
Apocalyptica’s set is about 15 minutes too long. They really could do with losing the mid-set section where the band’s singer is introduced. He looks and sounds like he’s been plucked straight from the nu-metal bargain bin, and many punters take the opportunity to replenish their plastic pints. It must be tough making your name as a covers band when your ambitions are much higher, especially when there’s little evidence that the crowd want you to veer too far from the beaten path.
Emmy Award-winning writer David Quantick interviewed Alice Cooper on Saturday afternoon. His favourite Coop songs are School’s Out, Only Women Bleed and, as a curveball, the 1994 single Lost In America.
Michael Monroe is ageless. While he may look a little more ragged now that he did as the ultimate androgynous youth, he bounds about the stage with exactly the same energy as he did when Hanoi Rocks triumphed amidst a hail of empty cider bottles at the Reading Festival in 1983. He’s extraordinary, a genuine force of nature.
According to Therapy? bassist Michael McKeegan, “people seemed to really enjoy chanting ‘James Joyce is fucking my sister’” during their song Potato Junkie. At 5pm on a Saturday. That’s just rude.
Vodun vocalist Chantal Brown is a star in the making, just as she was with Do Me Bad Things. As her band deliver a thundering set of occasionally terrifying afro-psyche freakouts in the foyer of what’s essentially a well-lit shopping centre, you wonder whether the world is actually ready for the day-glo splendour of Oya (Chantal’s voodoo name), the wildness of maniacal guitarist The Marassa, and the flailing, gymnastic beats of drummer Ogoun.
Alice Cooper really is the ringmaster at the Greatest Show On Earth. He knows that despite all the things you expect (the guillotine, the snake, the electrical sparks, the cartoon violence) it’s the unexpected that transports people to another level. So when he does a quartet of tracks dedicated to the dead — Pinball Wizard, Fire, Suffragette City and Ace Of Spades — the atmosphere lifts several notches and there’s barely a dry eye in the house.
SUNDAY, JUNE 19
In our excitement, we got to Stone Free a bit early. But our time wasn’t entirely wasted — according to the Cineworld inside the O2, the first of two sequels to Independence Day, Independence Day: Resurgence is out on Wednesday. Get in!
A rather grand proposition, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Symphonic brought our first dose of culture to the hall with the giant inflatable Day-Glo octopus in it (always watching, always waiting). Conducted by John Rigby, who’s previously knocked Peter Kay and Joe Pasquale into shape in The Producers, apart from a majestic take on the music, we’ve literally never seen so many kettle drums in one place in our lives. ‘It’s like timpan alley’ as one wag said. Get out.
As an eight-piece band, Knifeworld have had their ups and downs playing gigs: last year at Ramblin’ Man it pissed down all day (what’s new, UK festival weather?) and on a previous date in Glasgow a hole had to be cut into the ceiling of the venue so Chloe Herington could play her bassoon onstage. This weekend was the turn of frontman Kavus Torabi to be tested when his guitar strap broke and was forced to contort into the weirdest shapes to wrangle out those impressive psychedelically proggy licks he’s so famous for. He might have been spurred on by the memory of meeting his hero, Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden, at their O2 afterparty three years ago. Approaching Smith to get a photo, he and prog pal Mike Vennart were blocked by Maiden security only for Smith to call out ‘He’s alright! He’s in Gong!’
Now aged 66 but looking younger than his early-70s Mexican bandit era (although we do love that ‘tache), not only did Steve Hackett invent finger-tapping, but his current guitar expertise is so on form these days that grown men practically exploded into prisms of progressive ecstasy after his solo on Firth Of Fifth. In fact, the whole set was flawless, and without a soundcheck. Pro.
On hearing at their TeamRock zone Q&A that Marillion have a new album on the horizon, a small number of extremely passionate fans decided to take to the O2’s skywalk, Up, to find out if said work could be seen from the top. They didn’t spy its brooding brilliance glinting in the distance but they did come across a chap camped up there in a little tent, right at the apex. We wondered where Arthur ‘Crazy World’ Brown’s yurt had been moved to since he got his eviction notice.
We lost count of the amount of people wearing capes in honour of tonight’s headliner Rick Wakeman – staff included. Some fans even went the extra mile and wore ones adorned with sequins. Kudos to those traveling to South London looking like a prog superhero.
Capes aside, Wakeman’s reworking of his 1975 epic The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur is so big that alongside narrator Ian ‘Don’t Tell ‘Em Pike’ Lavender, a full orchestra, the English Rock Ensemble and English Chamber Choir he’s had to draft an extra Wakeman in to share the elaborate keyboard runs, Oliver. Second synth-sprog Adam Wakeman might have joined ‘em too, but he’s currently on tour in Europe with a little-known beat combo called Black Sabbath. We think they’ve got an album out.
Words: Fraser Lewry, Jo Kendall and Matt Stocks