Once upon a time, gigs took place indoors, or in football stadiums for the very largest acts, and festivals in a muddy field. While rock festival demographics have gradually got older, the havoc wreaked by the vagaries of the English weather gets less attractive as you get older – ask anyone who went to Sabbath and Maiden the previous week at Download.
So the inaugural Stone Free festival seemed an attractive business model, based on the successful Country to Country festival here – a traditional festival with multiple stages and big name headliners, yet under one roof, in this case the cavernous dome of the 02.
I suspect the original brief to take over the 02 was rather scaled back, but prior to the main arena opening the action took place in the foyer with a makeshift stage for up and coming bands and a record fair (replaced on Sunday by a market that hardly justified the term) and the Indigo, a great venue in its own right which seems strangely underused for rock acts.
It was there that Jared James Nichols became the first ever artist to play Stone Free, albeit to an ear shatteringly loud sound which fortunately righted itself over the weekend. The American guitarist’s power trio were impressively tight and while I had mentally filed them under blues rock, the emphasis was on heavier fare and it was not only Jared’s sawn off check shirt that led me to make Black Stone Cherry comparisons.
He mixed originals like ’Playing For Keeps’ with a closing cover of ‘Mississippi Queen’, appropriately enough as Mountain and Grand Funk Railroad were good reference points. With the confidence to get audience participation going and his singing also much improved since I saw him support Glenn Hughes last year, JJN is clearly one to watch.
A musical and visual contrast was provided by Jackaman, former St Jude singer Lynne’s eponymous band. An elfin figure in a patterned dress, her powerful vocal delivery was extraordinary, and with a band that included Quireboys guitarist Guy Griffin, the sound was a natural progression from St Jude with blues and soul influences to the fore.
‘Wasted’ was satisfyingly funky, while the grooves of ‘Can’t Take It Back’ impressed me hugely, even if her sax player was too low in the mix. Her voice is an undoubted asset and she ended the last number ‘Nothing But My Records On’ holding an almost choral like vocal melody.
One of the other selling points of the festival was a programme of comedy, talks and activities, and at this point I went off to a rock quiz which I soon regretted and missed the punky energy of Northern upstarts The Virginmarys, but was back in the Indigo for Michael Monroe.
The Finn has to be one of rock’s great treasures with the image that inspired a thousand LA glam bands unchanged after 35 years. As he opened with ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’, his band provided a tight but basic high octane, sleazy backing, and he still radiates incredible energy, climbing onto the speaker stacks and diving into the crowd on more than one occasion with roadies frantically trying to untangle leads as a result.
It was Hanoi Rocks numbers, complete with his sax playing, like ‘Malibu Beach Nightmare’ and ‘Tragedy’ that went down best alongside enjoyable newer numbers like ‘Dead Hearts On Denmark Street’, a tribute to the Soho that was the centre of London’s vibrant music scene but is being swept away, while ‘Man With No Eyes’ had a more melodic feel.
There could only be one song to finish in his classic signature song ‘Dead, Jail Or Rock n Roll’ to which I found myself punching the air as did hundreds of others. As one of my fellow hacks remarked, he epitomised the true spirit of rock n roll.
Closing out the free-for-all at the Indigo were Therapy who opened with numbers like ‘Isolation’ and ‘Die Laughing’, dedicated to Philip Lynott, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Mainman Andy Cairns’ everyday appearance belied the rather dark and twisted nature of some of the material which is more edgy than some of their contemporaries like Ash and The Wildhearts, and I returned from another abortive attempt to win prizes in rock trivia to hear the lyric ‘James Joyce is f**ing my sister’.
In their 1990’s heyday, I was profoundly out of step with the musical zeitgeist, and never took to Therapy, but I left with what I came for with the classic punk pop choruses of ‘Going Nowhere’ and ‘Screamager’ closing the set.
The Saturday line up in the Arena was a mixed bag with a legend in Alice Cooper supported by three very diverse bands of more recent vintage, and reasonably well attended with the floor eventually filling up and most of the side seats in the bottom tier filled.
However for some reason Blackberry Smoke took the stage 15 minutes late which was to store up trouble for later. A laid-back opener in ‘Fire In The Hole’ showed off their southern charms, and they started well with a series of commercial songs be it the fun ‘Six Ways To Sunday’, the 12 bar rhythms of ‘Rock n Roll Again’ (sounding suspiciously like Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock n Roll’, and ‘Good Thing Goin On’ with some great slide guitar from lead singer Charlie Starr.
They seemed to be going down well and the fact they were as immobile on stage as ever could be forgiven. However ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ drifted off into the type of indulgent meandering jam, complete with a snatch of Zeppelin’s ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ , that southern bands are prone to and momentum was never restored with a mere 35 minutes to play with.
In the venue where Monty Python had their reunion gigs, it was ‘and now for something completely different’ in the shape of Apocalytica’s triple cello attack. They were a fascinating musical mash up and it was interesting to see how the cellists played off each other, not to mention pulling some very metal poses with hair flailing, and the central role played by the drums in keeping things tight and ensuring the music still had some bottom end to it.
Of course these Finns made their name with their cellified Metallica instrumentals and it was fun to hear people behind me shouting the lyrics to their version of ‘Master Of Puppets’. However they have gone on to broaden the formula with original material and on this occasion brought on a singer Freddie Perez.
This was when it started to not work for me with all of a sudden the three cellos sounding very thin support as opposed to a wall of guitars and bass. More suitable was a return to a Metallica cover with ‘Seek And Destroy’ and a closing suite based around ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’.
The Darkness have always been a marmite band but love them or loathe them (and I tend to the former camp), objectively speaking they were a perfect second on the bill, with experience of playing large shows and a larger than life stage presence, a sizeable fan base but not one which would threaten to trump the headliners.
However this will not go down as their finest hour as by the time they came on stage they were an ominous 20 minutes late and, as if to suggest the soundtrack was rushed, the sound was very poor on opener ‘Barbarian’.
However ‘Growing On Me’ remains a favourite and when Justin Hawkins burst into trademark falsetto on the chorus, my mind was transported back to 2003 and the heady days of Darkness mania.
Indeed virtually all the set was taken from ‘Permission To Land’ (available in charity shops everywhere) with old favourites like ‘Black Shuck’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘Stuck In A Rut’, and their latest album all but ignored, though on the evidence of a dull ‘Mudslide’ that may be no bad thing.
Their hair may be shorter and more foppish these days but Justin and brother Dan remain a meaty guitar duo, a fact which Darkness-haters conveniently ignore, and ‘Love Is Only a Feeling’ remains a great power ballad, but ‘One Way Ticket To Hell And Back’ was another where they seemed to lose the plot somewhat.
Justin remains as eccentric as ever, notably when bizarrely picking out audience members to guess their name. He was matched in the quirkiness stakes by bassist Frankie Poullain’s resemblance to a seventies Open University Maths lecturer, but Roger Taylor’s son Rufus on drums was giving the music a heavier feel.
Unfortunately time had beaten them with Justin rather churlishly blaming Apocalyptica, and two songs had to be omitted with the set shortened to a mere 40 minutes, but of course it had to end in ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ and the way the crowd were jumping as Justin cavorted on stage with some great guitar solos was a reminder how it has stood the test of time as one of rock’s best-known songs.
It was rather a case of better luck next time for the Lowestoftians, and indeed the arena show had so far been rather underwhelming and was in need of a lift, which Alice Cooper and band certainly provided. After a spoken Vincent Price intro, the curtain with his famous eyes lifted as they opened with Black Widow.
Broadly speaking the show divided into two parts, as in the opening section they whistled through a series of classics, mainly from his stunning burst of creativity in the early seventies, including ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’, though it was noticeable he was getting the crowd to sing much of the chorus, a rattling ‘Under My Wheels’, ‘Is It My Body’ with Alice wrapping a python around himself and ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, with twin guitars and dollar bills thrown out off a stick.
The band were truly superb and as well as being musically tight, rose to the extra challenge of ensuring their timing also kept the visual show on the road, not least as Alice is famously in character and not speaking during the show.
They now boast three guitarists with Nita Strauss a very eye catching addition in every sense, a striking blonde pulling poses and reeling off some very technical solos, although long standing guitarist, the be-capped Ryan Roxie, to me came closest of the three to the spirit of the original Alice Cooper band.
After a guitar solo from Nita, ‘Poison’ got the biggest audience reaction yet and was delivered more convincingly than it sometimes is live, but after a couple of longer numbers we were into the set piece part of the set with Alice’s Vaudevillian horror show.
‘Feed My Frankenstein’ saw a 20 foot monster stumbling around the stage, ‘Cold Ethyl’ had him wrestling with a baby, and after delivering ‘Only Women Bleed’ tied up in a chair (with some great 12 string work from Ryan), ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry’ was the backdrop for the usual battles with girls and nurses and the guillotine falling on him.
It was the same enjoyable schtick I have seen him do countless times so I knew what to expect but was tempted to turn to any newcomers and imitate Nick Ross’s old sign off on ‘Crimewatch’- ‘don’t have nightmares, do sleep well’ !
However when Alice returned from ‘the dead’ it was with a fresh twist to his show, as he said he wasn’t ready to join the Hollywood Vampires club and the band did authentic covers of ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Fire’ with Nita doing her best Jimi Hendrix on the latter.
The theme became apparent as a backdrop of Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix tombstones was added to by David Bowie’s during a ‘Suffragette City’, a fitting tribute not least as it came from his greatest period when he and Alice were glam rock pioneers.
Alice mimed there was one more, and Lemmy’s headstone was revealed while bassist Chuck Garric – whose hair and sideburns seem to have spectacularly grown in the four years since I last saw the band – gave an uncanny vocal impression of the legend on ‘Ace Of Spades’.
As an added bonus, ‘I’m Eighteen’ was slipped in and felt much better for coming late set when the atmosphere was stoking rather than its usual earlier place, before the inevitable climax of ‘School’s Out’, the floor a riot of partying as bubbles gave way to giant inflatable balls.
However there was a final encore in store, as in an election special Alice came back on in Uncle Sam garb and an ‘Alice For President’ T-shirt to play ‘Elected’, with a giant Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump coming on to brawl with each other. Originally written in the year of Nixon’s re-election in 1972, it was a reminder that politicians may come and go but rock n roll is timeless, as is satire for that matter.
I would have no hesitation in saying that the quality of the band and the surprise set additions, allied to his usual entertaining stage show, made this the best yet of the many Cooper shows I have seen and after a mixed bag of a day, Stone Free was off to a flying start.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
Day 2 (19 June)
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Power Plays w/c 11 September
JASPER SLOAN YIP The Day Passed And The Sun Went Down (Afterlife Music/Membran)
THE HARPOONIST & THE AXE MURDERER Get Ready (Tonic Records)
TWISTER 64 White Lies (indie)
LOVER Fallen Famous (indie)
WAYWARD SONS I Don’t Wanna Go (Frontiers)
OTIS Blind Hawg (Cleopatra Records)
THE BRONSONS Girl From Outer Space (indie)
Featured Albums w/c 11 September (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 MIDNITE CITY Midnite City (AOR Heaven)
12:00-13:00 WAYWARD SONS Ghosts Of Yet To Come (Frontiers)
14:00-16:00 THE DEADLY WINTERS Ravynstoun (indie)
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