It’s a rock festival, Jim, but not as we know it. For a start it’s indoors, so there’s no rain or mud. The loos are pristine. And the various stages are as close together as you can get without noise bleeding from one to the other. Although, to retain that authentic festival vibe, you still have to remortgage your house to buy a plate of food.
Comestible costs aside, it’s compact, it’s clean and it’s conceptual: the line-up for Day 1, which takes place over an inclement (but who cares because we’ve got a nice big dome to protect us) weekend in June, has a strong Classic Rock flavour while Day 2 is led by Prog-friendly artists. Give or take some anomalies – such as Wilko Johnson, not widely known for his tripartite song suites and cosmic rock odysseys, appearing on the Sunday – Stone Free is your two favourite music magazines brought as near as damn it to life.
Saturday gets off to a fine, blues-funky start at the Indigo with Jackaman, fronted by former Saint Jude vocal powerhouse Lynne Jackaman, a vision in a short, patterned dress flanked by four men-in-black. They’re a sort of 21st Century Vinegar Joe, all rock energy and soul warmth, with Jackaman leaping between octaves with a single bound. Mind you, not sure if Elkie Brooks ever writhed quite as suggestively as that…
Somewhat less atmospheric than the Indigo is the Entrance Stage. It’s always going to be hard creating that sexy-cool rock’n’roll atmosphere on a platform by the front door of a brightly lit shopping centre-cum-restaurant/cinema complex, but fresh-faced mod-rock urchins The RPMs give it a good go. They’re a trio,
a bit in the vein of The Jam (or to be more accurate one of The Jam’s callow progeny such as Secret Affair). You can imagine their uptight, uptempo beat rock going down a treat 40 years ago at the Roxy but in these antiseptic environs, they struggle to catch fire.
It might be a sunny Saturday afternoon, but The Virginmarys have the darkness of the Indigo on their side, and their muscular, metallic punk, with shades of, variously, The White Stripes, The Black Keys and 3 Colours Red, works a treat in there.
But Stone Free isn’t all sound and fury; there’s fun-size activities as well, such as Lord Sinclair’s Solid Rock Quiz, presented by a gentleman who vaguely resembles Paul Stanley gone to seed, all satin, leather and beer belly pushing at the fabric of his T-shirt. If you like pop quizzes but get angry when all the questions aren’t about Deep Purple, the Stones and Metallica, then this would have been nirvana (although there were no questions about Nirvana).
Sinclair looks tame, however, next to Vodun, who do a fair impression of psychedelic tribespeople from Planet Pandora, daubed in paint and shrieking oddly soulfully over a metallic racket. It is rather surreal to be watching this in mid-afternoon at the Entrance Stage – by the main doors so that, presumably, terrified children can flee – but there’s no denying the ferocity of the music, even if it is somewhat difficult to categorise. A young Aretha Franklin possessed by voodoo hoodoo, fronting Gordi? Quasi-operatic R&B metal? Whatever, it works.
Past the vinyl fair, where sellers of merch from records and CDs to posters and T-shirts are doing a roaring trade, up the stairs to the Speak Easy Lounge, Classic Rock journalist and comedy writer David Quantick is fending off an angry mob. Okay, maybe “mob” is a teensy bit strong – “throng” is probably more accurate. Still, the hapless scribe is having to explain why his interview with the legendary Alice Cooper, headlining the main stage later tonight, will culminate with a Q&A with the audience but not a meet-and-greet. Even when Cooper arrives, the crowd’s fury threatens to spill over into mutiny; one woman is reduced to tears at the prospect of not getting a selfie with her hero. Nevertheless, Quantick handles the situation with aplomb, defusing the tension and joining Cooper on a bar stool to coolly enquire about his career, draw connections between Grand Guignol and Cooper’s brand of camp hard rock, and invite some predictably marvellous anecdotes about Mary Whitehouse, Salvador Dali and snakes.
Michael Monroe looks astonishingly unchanged at 54; a blond bombshell in cap, fancy waistcoat and skinny jeans. Surrounded by Johnny Thunders lookalikes in his band, it’s hard to believe the former Hanoi Rocks frontman isn’t higher on the bill, although Monroe himself doesn’t seem bothered, giving it loads of glam metal pizazz and making his performance count. The Lounge Kittens are an entertaining novelty: imagine a punk Andrews Sisters, all tattoos and bodices, their hair and garb a riot of neon pinks and blues as they perform comedy near-a cappella versions of Pretty Fly (For A White Guy), Teenage Dirtbag and Poison by Alice Cooper, who they promise to assail later by “rubbing our bums on him” because “that’s what we do to famous people”. Fair enough. Therapy? are the last band on today at Indigo and they certainly pack ‘em in – it may be daylight outside but in here it’s a sweaty, dank, subterranean hell-hole on the edge of town, i.e. perfect for the Northern Irish trio’s full metal racket. Andy Cairns, the fibber, introduces Potato Junkie as “an old Irish folk song” that “they used to teach us at school”, before getting several hundred people to sing along with the immortal refrain, “James Joyce is fucking my sister!”
Over at the O2 proper, where for some unfathomable reason there is a huge blowup multicoloured octopus and two equally enormous naked balloon-people at the back of the hall, it’s time for Blackberry Smoke. They’re straight outta Atlanta, Georgia, via the movie Almost Famous, with their stetsons, beards and unreconstructed, hirsute southern-fried boogie. They’re obviously very Allman Skynyrd, but they also make you think of bands you might not have heard before, like Black Oak Arkansas. They tell a story about being detained by the authorities at Heathrow, and another about a bar fight in Austin. Well of course they do. There is a lot of slow noodling and jamming that would doubtless sound amazing stoned.
And now for something completely different: Finnish band Apocalyptica and their heavy chamber music; Scandinavian death metal as purveyed by classically trained cellists with flailing flaxen locks; Anthrax meets the Brodsky Quartet. They bring on a singer for a few numbers which spoils the effect somewhat (reducing the ‘what-the-fuck?!’ quotient), but they’re a gimmicky party piece with real power.
The Darkness appear without fanfare or fuss, in glam tat. Justin Hawkins’s outfit – black velvet cloak with gold embroidery, matching gold boots and gambling visor cap, the sort that old ladies wear in Miami Beach – feels shabby and low-rent, suggesting a certain loss of will to raise proceedings to an appropriate level of pomp and circumstance. His every move and gesture tonight – a shrill falsetto here, a foot on the monitor there – is loaded with self-mockery, but there’s a sense, too, of mocking the fans, with time-wasting attempts at audience participation. They’re in danger of squandering the good feeling they’ve always generated with what is (understandable) frustration at their recent albums not doing quite the business of their early releases.
There’s a thin line between good-natured debunking and sneering self-loathing, and Alice Cooper walks it well. His show is a masterclass in camp theatrics and the illusion of rock edge. He comes on in his cloak and pin-stripe suit, looking every inch the sinister master of ceremonies, much as he did in 1972, surrounded by a colourfully glam band, skipping like a man half his age. He ticks all the boxes: Alice in straitjacket (check), snake round shoulders (check), head chopped off with guillotine (check), rampaging Frankenstein monster (check). It peaks with a celebration of his most-missed deceased rockers: covers of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, Bowie’s Suffragette City, and Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades. Finally, we get a Bob Ezrin mash-up of School’s Out and Another Brick In The Wall, followed by Elected, acted out by figures in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton masks. Fuck ‘em both: Alice for President.
Things take a proggy turn on Sunday. Haken essay an impressive line in progressive metal, as precise, even clinical, as you could want, although melodic elements do creep in: one of the tracks sounds like a harder-edged Marillion while another is as jaunty and ‘pop’ as Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill.
Colour Of Noise are unashamed classic rockers, and although singer Matt Mitchell throws the sort of shapes and does the sort of things with a mic stand that you should probably only do in front of 20,000 people in a stadium as opposed to 20 people in a shopping centre, they offer the confident impression of a band about to get the size of audience they deserve.
There’s a massive scramble to see iconic record sleeve designer Roger Dean discussing his artwork for the new recording of Rick Wakeman’s Myths And Legends, all the way back to the entrance to the Speak Easy Lounge. Wilko Johnson is equally popular over at Indigo, which he transforms for an hour or so into a small club in Canvey. Among the grinding blues rock riffs, he even takes a detour into reggae: think Dr Feelgood meets Dr Alimantado.
Xander And The Peace Pirates, a Liverpool band who have supported Bon Jovi, play funked-up blues and rock: you can imagine Sly Stone circa 1973’s Fresh covering one standout number. Over at the O2, Prog editor Jerry Ewing, resplendent in glittery red cape, MCs the evening’s entertainment. First up are Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Symphonic Live, a swelling, sweeping orchestral rendering of an album that now, 41 years on, appears to have presaged punk – with its acerbic dissection of corporate greed. Given the anonymity of the Floyd, the fact that their 1975 meisterwerk is being performed here by several dozen faceless musicians does no injustice to it, because the music is foregrounded, not the personalities who made it.
Steve Hackett – introduced correctly as “one of the greatest progressive rock guitarists this country has ever produced” – is in fine form, as is Everybody’s Favourite Prog Bassist, Nick Beggs, in a kilt. The audience is rapt, and that’s before they play Firth Of Fifth, which induces paroxysms of delight. It’s an eclectic set that takes in the title track of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, West Coast harmonies, staccato strings worthy of Bernard Herrmann, choral metal bombast and a number that, had it appeared on the recent Radiohead album, would have caused mass fainting in the street.
Grown men cry during Marillion’s set: at the intricacy of the music, and the sheer resonating emotion of it all. Steve Hogarth prefaces Easter with a spiel about “Syria, Ukraine and Sierra Leone”, ahead of a crystalline guitar solo from Steve Rothery. Kayleigh gets an ovation of its own, there’s a mini-suite of Misplaced Childhood songs, followed by Neverland, during which Hogarth spreads his giant white-shirted arms like an angel in flight, quite impressive for a bloke from Kendal.
Rick Wakeman headlines, as you’d expect given the historic nature of this performance: a world exclusive of his 12-million-selling prog landmark, The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table, for the first time since 1975. Our favourite grumpy old caped synth crusader is joined by narrator Ian (Dad’s Army) Lavender, a full orchestra, the English Rock Ensemble and English Chamber Choir – oh, and Wakeman’s son Oliver, on extra keyboard trills.
This is no diminished rendition to accommodate festival constrictions: there must be 30-odd musicians onstage, as well as a 20-strong choir. “Grandiose” doesn’t quite cover it. It couldn’t be more different to last night’s closing act, but there is a shared sense of spectacle and ambition, and a refusal to think small. Sure, the backing singer is a bit “West End musical” when really you need someone with an idiosyncratic quality to their voice, steeped in the mystery of this epic endeavour, but once the choir and strings kick in, it really is quite rousing.
Albeit with minor reservations, Stone Free was immaculate.