The highs and lows from this year's Stone Free Festival

A mixed bag of young guns and veteran rockers take over London’s O2 Arena for the second outing of the indoor festival

Blue Oyster Cult on stage
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

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It must feel like the fates are colluding against you when you announce a one-day festival in east London and Guns N’ Roses decide to pitch their tent just down the road with an extra night of their Not In This Lifetime tour at the London Stadium. It’s like ordering a clown for your kid’s birthday party and then realising that next door have gone the whole hog and hired a bouncy castle and one of the cast of the Teletubbies. Cue jumbled Tube carriages on the Jubilee Line (which leads to both The O2 and the London Stadium) shuttling their heavy metal cargo – Rainbow, Blue Öyster Cult factions here, Slash and GN’R T-shirts over there – to their respective destinations. To Stone Free’s credit, it doesn’t look like they’ve taken too much of a hit – the paved concourse outside The O2 Arena is populated with men in fading tour merch and ladies in straw cowboy hats, all clutching plastic glasses of cider. Blink and you could be in a less muddy Download on a Sunday night.

Indoors, which must confuse the hell out of the casual O2 visitor who might have popped in to see the latest instalment of the Transformers franchise, is a vinyl fair and bands tearing it up on the so-called Big Entrance Stage. Young mothers, laden down with mewling children, a Starbucks, a pushchair and an affixed disapproving stare, push on past the hordes and into the heart of the arena, though presumably not to try any of the number of comedians and talks in the upper reaches of the building, or the Indigo stage where bands such as Gun and The Answer are thrilling chokingly full rooms.

A little too full when it comes to Indigo headliners Blue Öyster Cult. So popular are the band made forever infamous by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live that the queue stretches around the theatre and out of sight. It’s a strict one-out-one-in policy, much to the chagrin of a parade of (rightly) furious punters.

Inside, the newly slimmed down and recently shaved BÖC are on rare form. It’s packed from front to back as the band run through their debut album in full. The haunting Then Came The Last Days Of May and the electric Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll are so good that grown men look like they might swoon. Sadly, there’s no time for Flaming Telepaths or Shooting Shark, but it’s hard to grumble when Burnin’ For You has just rattled your bridgework.

Sweet sensations: bar-room boogie meets arena rock

Sweet sensations: bar-room boogie meets arena rock (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

And so to the main event in the cavernous 18,000 capacity arena. Sweet have the unenviable job of warming up for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, but even if the main room is curtained off at the rear, this incarnation of the band manages to fill up at least half the floor space and a generous number of seats heading up to the eaves. It’s hard to know what to make of Sweet in this day and age, with a singer who, from a distance, could be REO’s Kevin Cronin, and last original man standing, the droll and entertaining Andy Scott. They ruin Love Is Like Oxygen by segueing into ELP’s Fanfare For The Common Man, and look terribly pleased with themselves for doing so, but the response is the kind of full-throated roar reserved for a Kiss encore.

These days Sweet are a strange anomaly – clearly the best kind of bar band, they can talk all they like about their evolution, but if they played a better song tonight than Fox On The Run then CR must have missed it. That said, if their best years are behind them (and they are), then they ascended to playing an arena set with aplomb, even without the production bells and whistles this kind of show usually merits.

Which is more than can be said of the man in black. With a band that wear a constant mask of uncertain fear, as if Blackmore has their respective families held hostage somewhere and one gesture from the guitarist might seal their doom forever. Ritchie’s clearly past caring. There’s no set list, the singer informs us nervously, twitching like a dog that’s been kicked one too many times, and no real stage show. The giant video screen behind the band and a line of what look like practice amps flicker into occasional life, like a vintage VHS machine running old pictures of Ritchie and Ronnie James Dio in what must have been happier times – it’s hard to tell from their expressions.

Ritchie remains tethered to his spot near the drum riser, dressed all in black and comfortable shoes. It’s not clear if he even knows the audience are there – he certainly doesn’t acknowledge them. At one point the spotlight shifts towards the lip of the stage, as if the guitarist might inch forward, but he shrugs the beam of light off and stands stock still, presumably marvelling at his own fretwork.

The special surprise guest of the night is the ageless Russ Ballard, who you presume was meant to be a late highlight of the show until Ritchie, with an odd combination of shifting eyebrows and an admonishing finger (not a word uttered), instructs his singer to get Russ on early. Consequently, Since You Been Gone is a spark of rare fire in a sea of diminishing returns.

That said, it’s hard to fault the mellifluous solo on Mistreated or the thunder that Man On The Silver Mountain brings, but each time you grasp for the nettle of hope, Blackmore slinks off out of sight (he stays off stage for so long during the keyboard solo that the organist appears to run out of music to play) and sucks all the goodwill from the room, probably smirking to himself as he does so.

Which is pretty much as he leaves it, sloping shoulders eventually returning to the darkness as the house lights rise, no doubt picking up his cheque as he goes, the door slamming shut behind him with one last defiant bang.

The Story Behind The Song: Fox On The Run by Sweet

The 10 best Blue Oyster Cult songs, by Eric Bloom

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.