The O2 Arena. A silly place for a festival, you might think. But after last weekend’s sodden Download and a slippery time of it at Field Day, a roof seems a good idea. Besides, a quick glance up reminds you the dome is really a big tent. A really big tent, full of bars and restaurants, happening to house the odd venue or two.
Advance word on ticket sales for this first Stone Free festival hasn’t been great, and as we wander in it’s difficult to make out the people here for the complex’s myriad offerings from Those About To Rock. But a small crowd begins to gather around the Fireball Stage (opposite All Bar One, just next to Starbucks), where body-painted voodoo psych-lords Vodun are impossible to tear your eyes – or ears – from.
Since the release of debut album Possession earlier this year, the London three-piece have attracted a lot of interest, and the effect on the O2’s window-shoppers is much the same as they slam into the punishing Loa’s Kingdom. Driven by the unyielding tribal clatter of Ogoun on drums, their setup may be bassless, but even in these less than acoustically ideal environs, the Marassa’s guitar sound has the guttural grumble of the belch of some gargantuan, planet-swallowing creature. Moving quickly on to the alternately grinding and pummelling Bloodstones, they tear through a taut, groove-heavy set, capped by Oya’s magnificent, soulful wail.
They’re a tough act to follow, but it’s on into Indigo, the sister venue of the main arena, where a sizeable crowd watch former Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe deliver a set of snarling, glammed up punk-n-roll. Frequently dropping his red and gold leather jacket and matching saxophone to clamber over the amps and into the crowd, the 54-year old seems to have no intention of stopping.
“This is about being the fat kid in school,” says Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns, before the heartfelt, Hüsker Dü-esque Lonely, Cryin’, Only, halfway through a set summing up the trio’s lasting appeal. Opening with Still Hurts, from 2015’s ferocious Disquiet, they hurtle into Isolation, which hasn’t left the band’s sets in the 20 or so years since second album Troublegum. It’s all teenage angst and tense muscularity, shot through with the stark alienation of the Joy Division original.
Cairns and bassist Michael ‘Evil Priest’ McKeegan are charismatic throughout, and the crowd lap up the newer material as happily as the evergreen Nausea and Teethgrinder – fevered, industrial melds of deep, dubby bass and inhuman drumming. There’s an unexpected bonus too when, during Potato Junkie, they buzz through the Vaselines‘ Son Of A Gun. It seems likely to be the only time this weekend we’ll hear Scots indie-pop, unless Rick Wakeman surprises us all with a Pastels cover. (He doesn’t.)
On the way to the main arena, we spot a father and son in matching Motörhead denim battle vests. Inside, after Blackberry Smoke‘s chooglin’ Southern rock, there’s a set from Apocalyptica. Novel before YouTube, where banjo and ukulele Slayer covers are ten-a-penny, their metal-on-cellos thing has now given way to a setup including a drummer and singer, who comes on for a few uniquely unmemorable original songs. Landing far better are the versions of Metallica‘s Seek And Destroy and Master Of Puppets sandwiching them, the latter revealing layers of harmony in the mid-section. The quartet finish with Grieg‘s In The Hall Of The Mountain King; it’s a suitably proto-metal epic, but The Darkness‘ Justin Hawkins may not have appreciated it, as their set following this is cut short.
Leaning heavily on debut Permission To Land, ranging from a slightly muddy Black Shuck to a bombastic Love Is Only A Feeling and the deathless I Believe In A Thing Called Love, they’re the first act to animate the half-full arena floor. Hawkins too is ever the showman, draped in a long embroidered coat, vocally acrobatic and articulate. “Are you all having a good day thus far?”, he asks. “And how many bands have you heard use the phrase ‘thus far’ thus far?” The arena-rock shtick was a lot funnier in small venues and not, well, arenas, but they’re enjoyable as ever, their theatrics setting us up nicely for the main event.
Clambering from a dressing-up chest after an intro from crown prince of horror ham Vincent Price, at 68 Alice Cooper still cuts a devilish dash with jet black hair and stripy kecks, and his performance – if a little more raspy these days – is the stuff of nightmares. (This is, of course, A Good Thing.)
Over the next hour and half, we see Alice wrap his snake around him for Is It My Body?, pull fistfuls of notes from a sword during Billion Dollar Babies, murder the reanimated mechanical doll who dances through Cold Ethyl and, in the usual dénoument, face the guillotine for his crimes. These macabre comic book routines could have worn thin a long time ago, but the songs themselves prove more indelible than all the fake blood. No More Mr Nice Guy, gloriously swaggering, is dispatched early, as is a greasy Under My Wheels. Only Women Bleed is a genuinely tender moment too – not for nothing have a range of artists from Julie Covington through to Etta James and Tori Amos covered it.
Amid all the Grand-Guignol stagecraft, Cooper’s band don’t miss a beat either, with the well-oiled panache you’d expect. There’s a drum solo which doesn’t quite outstay its welcome during the lengthy suite of Halo Of Flies, and guitarist Nita Strauss – also of brilliantly-named tribute act The Iron Maidens – takes centre-stage before Poison for the kind of note-spraying solo once beloved of poodle-permed men in spandex. It’s a ridiculously entertaining show, and even a four-song tribute – complete with giant mock-gravestones – to fallen heroes from Keith Moon (Pinball Wizard) to David Bowie (Suffragette City) is only ghoulish in the best way. Afterwards, as tempting as an after-party set by AC/DC UK might be (now boasting only one fewer original member than the real thing) it’s home to rest before day 2’s indulgences.
Sunday starts in Indigo with Cats In Space, a supergroup of sorts peddling a workmanlike proggish melodic AOR, drenched in ’70s synth. They finish with a superb version of Slade‘s How Does It Feel, a melancholy moment from the surprisingly bleak Flame.
Then there’s a set by psychedelic eight-piece Knifeworld, with frontman and former Cardiacs guitarist Kavus Torabi dazzling in a bright white suit. From the sprawling, mantra-like High/Aflame to the choral Me To The Future Of You, via the tremendous skronk of I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait, they’re a triumph; an intricate, playful corrective to the pious, retentive image of progressive rock.
Next up, in a last-minute addition, London quartet Teeth Of The Sea take things in an altogether darker, experimental direction with cold, howling guitar squalls and thudding, motorik beats before the arrival of Haken.
While their guitarists tune their many-stringed headless beasts, there’s a welcome moment of levity when the DJ accidentally rickrolls the audience before quickly skipping to the Cult (Astley, Astbury… it’s an understandable error). But, aside from the charmingly 8-bit ’80s graphics of their set – and the possibly unironic deployment of a keytar during the opening 1985 – it’s all very accomplished but a little po-faced. Much derided, prog rock is at its best when it’s at least a little self-aware; comfortable in its own pomposity. Only on the daft Cockroach King, complete with four-part vocal harmony and angular jazz breakdown, do the six-piece escape the confines of technicality for its own sake.
As far as 2016’s unexpected experiences go, seeing Wilko Johnson has to be among the best. Another late, extremely welcome announcement, Wilko’s post-punk take on rhythm and blues is as taut and wiry as ever. Backed by Steve Howe‘s son Dylan on drums and former Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy on dizzyingly nimble, fluid bass, Johnson still does the work of at least two guitarists as he prowls and shuffles, each flick of his wrist hitting bass, rhythm and lead.
“There was a time when I had 10 months, but now I’ve got 20 minutes,” he jokes after a brief discussion about how much time they have left; the affection in the room is palpable, and we’re rewarded with a fair few Dr Feelgood classics. Everybody’s Carrying A Gun, where Watt-Roy is let off Wilko’s tight leash for a superb solo and, inevitably, She Does It Right are clear highlights.
It’s a different kind of crowd at Stone Free today – Wakeman t-shirts dominate – and, if the arena still doesn’t seem particularly full, it’s entirely seated which helps. After a symphonic tribute to Pink Floyd‘s Wish You Were Here – nice, but ultimately weightless, with muzaky strings stripping layers of sardonic funk from music biz satire Have A Cigar and a wasted opportunity in the shape of the title track, which a passable Gilmour soundalike busks while the orchestra idle expensively – the prog heavyweights begin with a set from Steve Hackett.
Starting with a six-piece band, including Nick Beggs – formerly of Kajagoogoo – on bass, the former Genesis guitarist plays a selection of his solo work, including Loving Sea, rich with lush 12-string acoustic, and the doomy, King Crimson-esque A Tower Struck Down, which is received well. But when vocalist Nad Sylvan – apparently straight from the auditions for the next Doctor – wanders on to take the lead on a few songs from Hackett’s former band, the crowd are rapt.
Sylvan manages to sound somewhere almost exactly between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, and soars on a version of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The band tackle the sharp turns of Dance On A Volcano with gusto, and Firth Of Fifth is a total joy, from skipping piano motif to time-signature changes you need a spreadsheet to work out: everything everyone thinks they hate about prog rock in a ten minute symphony.
Marillion t-shirts have been almost as numerous today as the headliner’s and, despite having had a top ten hit as recently as 2004, there’s definitely an air of watching the country’s biggest cult band. Aside from a brief run through Heart Of Lothian, Lavender and (naturally) Kayleigh from the Fish days, they draw mostly from the remarkable Marbles, closer to the brooding introspection of Talk Talk or The Blue Nile than Genesis-lite.
From the off, Steve Hogarth is a captivating presence, all grand, dramatic gestures, with the opening duo of the 13-minute The Invisible Man and You’re Gone seeing him flit from subdued, Mark Hollis hush to overwrought in a flash. He’s clearly making the most of the slightly curtailed set time – to allow a certain caped keyboard wizard to set up – and, by the end of Power, he’s flat on his back, projecting “I know all about power!” to the curtained-off uppermost tier.
After a short break, long enough to allow an orchestra, choir, banks of keyboards and an actual throne to be brought onstage – but not, sadly, to flood the arena floor for the authentic experience – it’s left to Rick Wakeman to end with a flourish. For the first time since 1975, he’s performing The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table, defrosted and expanded to twice its surprisingly modest 45 minute length.
Used for years as the BBC’s election night theme, Arthur feels strangely apt this week (not to mention the misty-eyed visions of an England which never existed). Despite the preposterousness, despite the accepted wisdom of punk as the spirited shot in the arm needed to deflate the pomposity and arch pretension of precisely This Type Of Thing, it’s undeniably fun, flipping from brown ale and corduroy minstrelsy to thunderous, feuding passages coming off like the KPM Game Of Thrones and the daft banjo and tack piano of Merlin The Magician.
Holding court at the rear, draped in a green cloak and often hidden behind a vast array of keyboards, Wakeman’s performance is refreshingly free of grousing about self-service checkouts or organic food. Instead, there are fleet-fingered harpsichord runs, the same hands that played on Life On Mars and more Minimoog than you can shake a Ghost Box album at, bringing the first Stone Free festival to a suitably grandiose close.
Whether it’s a one-off or the start of a regular O2 fixture isn’t clear, the vast size of the thing slightly eclipsing the audience, but the highs make up for a lot of its shortcomings. In the words of Arthur himself, channelled by Graham Chapman, “tis a silly place”, but we’d glady go back.