While the first day of the debut Stone Free festival had an eclectic mix of bands, the second was far more coherent with the theme of progressive rock both in the main arena and the Indigo. Combined with an older fan base, it also made for a more sedate and mellow feel to proceedings, not least as the Arena was fully seated this time.
There was no question of a lie-in for recovery time as I wanted to ensure I was there at the Indigo for the opening act Cats In Space who have to be one of my favourite bands of the moment, with these seasoned musicians reviving a lost strand of the seventies with their melodic songs and elaborate arrangements on their debut album ‘Too Many Gods’.
Having seen their live debut earlier this year at the Putney Half Moon it was great to see a spacious stage and good sound do justice to the scale of their ambitions. They opened with the pomp of the title track, followed by the soft rock heaven of ‘Only In Vegas’ and ‘Mr Heartache’, with Paul Manzi’s vocals supported by some great harmonies.
‘Greatest Story Never Told’ was something of an epic with bassist Jeff Brown singing the verses and ‘Five Minute Celebrity’ saw some rockier riffing from the guitar pair of Greg Hart and Dean Howard. It was a short set but still had time for a note perfect cover of one of the neglected classics in Slade’s repertoire, ‘How Does It Feel’.
The Indigo then played host to bands representing the full spectrum of the prog umbrella from the Canterbury sound-inspired Knifeworld to the rockier leanings of Haken, but I was relying on reports from friends as I was checking out some of the other action. Having already seen (and liked) Norfolk blues rockers Bad Touch on several support slots, for something different I attended an informative and amusing talk from beer writer Pete Brown on the science of the senses and how drinks could be matched to music.
However it rather lost its point for me when a half hearted attempt to hand out samples for us to test his theories never reached me, and I had to go to the small beer garden outside which was the only place selling real ale to put them to the test. From there I wandered into the entrance to catch some bands on the ‘introducing’ stage.
Vambo were a completely new name to me but a revelation with a classic hard rock sound, the powerful vocals of Jack Stiles reminding me of Rainbow-era Dio. The comparisons only increased when they finished a set of originals with a cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ with guitarist Pete Lance managing to replicate both guitar and keyboard solos. Incidentally I also received glowing reports about another band on the intro stage, Xander and the Peace Pirates and the quality of their guitar work in particular.
Colour of Noise on the other hand I was already familiar with and they have something of a pedigree notably with former Little Angels guitarist Bruce Dickinson, looking rakish in his patterned jacket and extensive tattoos. Former Pride and Furyon singer Matt Mitchell has a great voice though, after tearing into openers ‘You Only Call Me’ and ‘Medicine Man’ with a primeval howl, he proved his versatility by singing ‘Can You Hear Me’ in a lower and casual, almost poppy style.
The band’s take on classic rock is nothing new but their tightness and Bruce’s restrained but effortless playing lifts them above the crowd and an impressive set was epitomised by the highlights in the Zeppelin-esque ‘Can’t Take It With You’ and ‘Hit Rock Bottom’ whose crisp AC/DC-like grooves got people moving.
The Indigo was closed out not by a progger but by the supercharged R and B of Wilko Johnson, even more of a national treasure than ever after his reprieve from terminal cancer. It was noticeable how funky his trio was which is to be expected with Norman Watt-Roy’s nimble bass fingers, and people seemed to enjoy a career spanning selection including ‘Going Back Home’ which was the title track of his comeback album and a few other Dr Feelgood oldies.
Into the main arena, where even the lower tier was disappointingly half empty, the opening act was a symphony orchestra playing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in its entirety. There was occasional assistance from a guitarist and a couple of guest vocalists briefly came out for ‘Welcome To The Machine’ and the title track but otherwise it was a wholly classical performance. While briefly diverting the novelty quickly palled although I am sure Pink Floyd devotees, of whom I cannot claim to be one, would have been fascinated by it.
Next up was Steve Hackett who has been widely respected as prog royalty ever since he made the artistically, if not commercially, wise decision to quit Genesis in the seventies before the Collins influence became dominant.
He opened in surprisingly mainstream form with the excellent ‘Every Day’, complete with some harmony guitar, and the acoustic ‘Loving Sea‘ which had a folky pastoral feel before moving into some more complex and at times discordant instrumentals.
In a short set there was still time for a leavening of Genesis classics such as the ‘Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ and classically inspired epic ‘Firth Of Fifth’, with long-haired vocalist Nad Sylvan coming on to add a Gabriel-esque touch of flamboyance.
By the time of my formative years the pioneering Gods of prog had been superseded by new heroes in Marillion. I lost touch with their output some time ago and remarkably this was the first time I had seen them since the legendary ‘Garden Party’ festival at Milton Keynes 30 years ago to the month.
Present day Marillion are a somewhat different beast and the set opened with some more sprawling, atmospheric pieces such as ‘Invisible Man’. They were having difficulty holding my attention though the band had the quality and cohesion you would expect from having maintained the same line-up for over a quarter of a century.
However, after Steve ‘H’ Hogarth mentioned it was the first song they wrote together and made some slightly pompous Bono-esque remarks, ‘Easter’ was a highlight with its gorgeous melody and perhaps the guitar solo of the whole weekend from Steve Rothery.
However I was extremely surprised to hear the unmistakable intro to ‘Kayleigh’ and was transported back in time to the halcyon days of the summer of 1985 when somehow Marillion found themselves at No 2 in the singles charts. Considering how closely the song is associated with Fish, I was impressed by H’s versatility in doing it justice and indeed it led into a mini suite of ‘Misplaced Childhood’ songs in ‘Lavender’ and ‘Heart Of Lothian’.
Indeed by the end of the set after another lengthy epic ‘Neverland’ with more tasteful, stately soloing from Steve I found myself wanting more after their allotted 50 minutes.
And so to the centrepiece of the evening with the first live performance by Rick Wakeman of The Myths And Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table supposedly since 1975. There was no infamous performance on ice this time, but by way of compensation the original piece that ran to only 40 minutes of vinyl had been expanded to twice its original length.
The legendary keyboardist and ‘Grumpy Old Man’ stood at the back of the stage resplendent in dark green tunic and cape, commandeering a huge bank of different synthesisers and keyboards.
While his rock band were hidden to the rear of the one side of the stage I could not see, centre stage was taken by a pair of singers, one male and one female, and a youth orchestra with a somewhat older choir behind them. After each suite a silver haired narrator briefly gave a reading to keep us up to date with the story before moving onto the next movement.
Never having heard the original, I was not in the best position to critically evaluate or compare and contrast. Suffice to say the near hour and a half did not drag at all and the music switched seamlessly between orchestral passages and Rick’s solo synthesiser noodlings. No-one missed a beat and, being more used to simpler musical forms, I could only reflect on the effort that must have gone into rehearsing such an involved piece of work.
Perhaps surprisingly, as the participants took their bows at the end, the usually garrulous Rick had nothing to say and it would have been nice to have a few words of thanks or to name check the conductor and narrator and other key participants. Nevertheless it was proof of the scale and ambition of the classic era of rock music, one that hopefully will continue to be captured in future years as Stone Free builds on this promising start.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
Day 1 (18 June)
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