For the second successive year the Stone Free festival took over the whole of the 02 complex for the day: targeted at a discerning classic rock audience not wishing to slum it in a muddy field, and drawing inspiration from the Country 2 Country concept here, last years’ two days was reduced to one, but the headline act could not have been more classic rock worthy.
After his triumphant return to heavy rock for the first time in 20 years at Birmingham’s Genting Arena last year, Ritchie Blackmore had reassembled his latest Rainbow line-up for more dates and the UK tour kicked off with this festival headline.
Before then, there was a variety of activities ranging from comedy to a record fair, and a stage in the 02 foyer for up and coming bands, and an afternoon of the main supporting cast in the Indigo2. Awaiting the late arrival of a guest pass, I missed opening act Bang Bang Romeo, so my musical day kicked off with the appropriately entitled Crazy World of Arthur Brown. This great English eccentric has not changed over his now 75 years, and his grandiose, booming voice could still break into a scream. I could see elements in him that must have influenced Bruce Dickinson Ian Gillan and the early period Fish.
The music had a psychedelic feel with the organ of Matt Guest prominent, though he was duelling with guitarist Helen Durden on ‘Devil’s Grip’, which Arthur joked was the first ever heavy metal song. His stage act saw dancing muses and a bewildering array of outfits; during ‘Time Capsule’ he donned a floaty cloak that gave him the air of an Archbishop of a third world dictatorship.
However, during a couple of lengthy workouts I had my eye on the clock, and surely it was unthinkable he wouldn’t play the one song everyone associated with him- finally we did get ‘Fire’, albeit without his flaming headwear, but sure enough he was cut off mid-song. It was what Alan Hansen would have called a ‘schoolboy error’ from the veteran.
Moving forward in time, Gun confirmed they are having a career renaissance with a high energy set, which even began with a new song in ‘She Knows’. Young guitarist Tommy Gentry ,looking a cross between Billy Idol and Julian Assange, was pulling some shapes and launching some sharp solos, complementing the chunkier guitar style of Guliano Gizzi.
Oldies ‘Don’t Say Its Over’ and the anthemic ‘Better Days’ had plenty of fists punching at the front and their cover of ‘Word Up’ with Tommy again playing the solo , had the crowd willingly participating.
After so any years behind the bass Dante Gizzi looks absolutely at home as a frontman, well supported by backing vocals notably from bassist Andy Carr. Dedicated to London, ‘Hold Your Head Up’ was unexpectedly good, while new single ‘Favourite Pleasures’, which is being radio playlisted, was excellent combining a funky verse reminding me of Zeppelin’s ‘Trampled Underfoot’ with a very accessible chorus. The set rocked to its conclusion in usual Gun fashion with the anthems ‘Steal Your Fire’ and ‘Shame’, though I could have done without a pointless cover of ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’.
Moving from Scotland to Northern Ireland the question on our lips was, which version of The Answer would turn up? Would it be the reliable if slightly plodding blues rockers, or the band that had stunned fans with an about turn to play some original and inventive Gaelic-inspired music on last year’s Solas album, then had the courage to play nearly all the new album live?
The latter was initially the case as they opened with the slow burning, atmospheric title track, but realising this was a classic rock festival, perhaps wisely they returned to the sound that made them famous with a duo of first album favourites in ‘Under The Sky’ and the Zeppelin-ish ‘Never Too Late’, with some furiously powerful musicianship from drummer James Heatley in particular.
On Father’s Day weekend it was somehow appropriate to witness Cormac Neeson’s spindly dancing, but the frontman, in addition to his bellowing voice, has a droll sense of humour, joking it was typical that these paddies (sic) had chosen the hottest day of the year to play an indoor festival.
‘Demon Driven Man’ saw Paul Mahon lay down great bluesy guitar riffs and the set continued to focus on the basic side of their old sound with ‘On And On’ and the rarely played ‘I am What I Am’.
Nevertheless a trip back to the last album with ‘Thief Of Light’ had a beautiful feel to it, before the muscular grooves of ‘Spectacular’ and to finish, the third of the holy trinity of classics from ‘Rise’ in ‘Come Follow Me’ with Paul whipping up a storm on guitar. What their future holds is unclear but on this occasion a return to blues rock was just what the doctor ordered.
Given that admission to the Indigo was free for ticket holders, four times as many of whom would be in the Arena, it was always inevitable that Blue Oyster Cult‘s headline show would play before a full house, and indeed many people had unwisely left it too late, or popped out to the side stage or a restaurant and found they couldn’t get back in.
News came through in the run up to the gig that to celebrate their 45th anniversary they would play their self-titled debut in its entirety, which had various BOC connoisseurs salivating. I confess to not being familiar with the album, and would have preferred something like ‘Secret Treaties’ being picked for this special treatment.
Nevertheless it was fascinating, among less familiar material, to hear hidden gems like opener ‘Transmaniacon MC’ and the underrated classic ‘Workshop Of The Telescopes’, while there were still some of the moments that are staples of the BOC live set.
Three songs in, ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ featured a quite superlative passage of long guitar solos from first Richie Castellano, then Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, ‘Stairway To The Stars’ had a Doors-esque feel with Richie’s organ playing and in case any casual fans were getting bored, the trademark riff of ‘Cities On Flame’ with Rock n Roll enlivened the set with four guitars jousting at the front of the stage at the song’s conclusion.
Helped by the Indigo’s excellent sound, the band’s interplay was intuitive and the music subtle with Richie, generally stationed at his bank of keyboards, adding extra colour with organ and piano playing, and this was reflected in their genial but low-key and laid back stage presence.
After Eric Bloom made self-deprecating comments about them being indulgent, in the short time that remained it was straight into hits territory beginning with ‘Burning for You’ with Buck on lead vocals, before he then seemed to pull rank on Eric to squeeze in the instrumental ‘Buck’s Boogie’.
With one eye on the clock, fearing there would be insufficient time to swap venues and see The Sweet, this was a lengthy indulgence too far, but I relaxed at hearing traditional set closers ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’- which Eric dedicated to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and which naturally got the best reception, though Buck’s vocals somehow seemed rather weak.
I was curious what the encores might be and ‘Tattooed Vampire’ brought back memories of last summer’s classic London show when ‘Agents Of Fortune’ was played in its entirety, before Richie, enormous grin on his face, took lead vocals for ‘Hot Rails To Hell’. It was a diverse set that confirmed BOC’s status as one of classic rocks most underrated and quirkily original bands.
For the rest of the evening the focus switched to a half full 02 Arena, though only for two bands as opposed to the four on the main stage each day last year. Sweet were perhaps a surprise choice as support: when most of the audience were growing up in the seventies, the stereotype was that real rock fans only listened to album bands, and singles-based bands like them were seen as for pop fans or big or little sisters.
However, as Classic Rock’s Jerry Ewing declared when introducing them, as well as being mainstays of early seventies glam rock they were also a damn fine hard rock band, and a storming opener of ‘Action’ was the best way of proving that.
After a surprise cover of ‘New York Groove’ with some stunning high singing on the post-chorus bridge from second guitarist Tony O’Hora, ‘Hellraiser’ saw cries of ‘Mama You Don’t Understand’ from guitarist and keeper of the Sweet flame, Andy Scott, looking like a magnificent Old English Sheepdog with his luxuriant silver mane.
To my delight he then introduced what he quite rightly described as the best song Chinn and Chapman wrote for them in ‘The Six Teens’, a wonderful story song and a reminder that Sweet arguably pre-dated Queen with their multi-tracked vocal harmonies.
Tony, having served time over the years with the likes of Onslaught and Praying Mantis, was then a suitable choice to sing a couple of classics in ‘AC/DC’ and ‘Set Me Free’ from ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, the album that was ahead of its time and established their rock credibility.
Main singer Pete Lincoln even started a chant of ‘We Want Sweet’ at the start of the gloriously tacky ‘Teenage Rampage’ and a curmudgeonly crowd were beginning to lose their inhibitions to the ultimate guilty pleasure of a medley of ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and ‘Little Willy’.
In contrast ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’ wit Tony on keyboards showed off their more mature, lusher late-seventies sound, even if ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ was perhaps unnecessarily inserted into the instrumental passage.
Into a hit heavy home straight, ‘Fox on the Run’ saw Andy and Tony playing twin guitar, and by the time of encores ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘Ballroom Blitz’, with Andy delivering the camp shrieks originally made famous by Steve Priest, I could spot a healthy number of people on the arena floor taking to their feet.
After a truly excellent hour long set, Sweet’s energy and stage presence, not to mention catchy songs, had set the bar high for the headliners, and had me thinking it was high time they stepped off the ‘chicken in a basket’ civic hall oldies circuit and back onto bills like this to cement their legacy.
There was a sense of expectation whether Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow could build on last year’s tentative but triumphant return, as a Union Jack backdrop and their recent ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ remake gave way to the usual intro tape of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as they took the stage.
One of the biggest criticisms of those shows, that Deep Purple oldies outnumbered Rainbow ones, was instantly rectified, as Ritchie Blackmore, the spotlight shining on his stooped figure, played the classic opening riff on his cream Stratocaster to ‘Spotlight Kid’- though it was more of a showcase for the keyboard wizardry of Jens Johansson – swiftly followed by ‘I Surrender’, though Ronnie Romero’s voice was ill-suited to the song compared to Joe Lynn Turner’s original AOR tones.
At Birmingham last year I had been mightily impressed by the Chilean frontman but on this occasion less so: he had the unenviable task of working a huge stage with the other band members all rooted to the spot, and covering a range of songs originally sung by some of rock’s greatest ever vocalists.
However he was hindered by a rather raspy voice – on a respectable ‘Mistreated’ he sounded like the older, croakier Coverdale and an idiosyncratic grasp of the English language (opening with ‘good night London’) made it harder to build a crowd rapport.
‘Since You Been Gone’ saw its songwriter Russ Ballard, looking a very youthful 72, adding guitar and backing vocals, though I was disappointed we got Ritchie’s mid-song solo but not the outro from the original, followed by ‘Man On The Silver Mountain’. However with rotten timing, the very moment a poignant picture of Ronnie James Dio and Ritchie came up on the backdrop, they switched into a snatch of ‘Woman From Tokyo’ .
In a change of pace, Ritchie and Ronnie sat down, the former playing Spanish guitar on a delicate ‘Soldier Of Fortune’, then ‘All Night Long’ was a new addition to the set, though again it didn’t feel quite right without Graham Bonnet singing, before ‘Difficult To Cure’.
As a giant Ludwig van Beethoven looked down from the backdrop, Ritchie was on vintage form and reminding us of the genius way he adapted classical influences to the rock guitar in a manner which inspired countless imitators. Yet Jens’ keyboard solo seemed to go on forever and killed the momentum of the set stone dead.
Indeed the pacing of the set generally lacked fluency, with long gaps between songs while the band checked they were on the same wavelength, and I am sure this contributed to what was a very subdued atmosphere, at least in the seats where I was.
However if the set stagecraft left much to be desired, there could be no arguing with the quality of the songs as two of the lengthy epics that always used to feature in Friday Rock Show or Kerrang! all-time countdowns followed one after another: ‘Child In Time’, with Ronnie hitting the high notes Ian Gillan hasn’t been able to since the early eighties and Ritchie and Jens duelling, then ‘Stargazer’, where Ritchie again rolled back the years coaxing some great sounds with his slide during a mid-song solo.
In a set that stuck fairly closely to the best known songs, ‘Still l’m Sad’ was the nearest to an obscurity, though broken up by a pointless drum solo, before more crowd pleasers in ‘Long Live Rock n Roll’, with a rather jazzier swing these days, and montages of album covers and concert tickets, and ‘Black Night’. Typically just as the atmosphere was warming up nicely and chants of the riff were ringing around the arena, Ritche led the band off stage.
I feared the ever unpredictable maestro had gone off in a strop at the muted response, but luckily they were back for a fine version of the admittedly overplayed ‘Burn’. I knew what the climax would be, but there was one last surprise in a quite beautiful, slow burning ‘Catch The Rainbow’ before Ronnie rather inverted the order of things by singing the first line before Ritchie played his most famous introductory riff of all to ‘Smoke On The Water’, but it did feel a rather perfunctory version, not helped by the fact it was nearly 11, and many people were now leaving.
While great to see one of classic rock’s legends playing the songs he made famous and doing pretty well for a 72 year old with arthritic fingers, the overall impression was of a somewhat disappointing gig. They didn’t really make an arena style show work and the revivalist atmosphere that had made last year’s Birmingham show so special could not be replicated.
Moreover the band were a rather plodding shadow of the great musicians that originally built these songs. With not one but two of the best catalogues in rock, it could have been so much better had Ritchie picked a band to really stretch and challenge him.
Having satisfied the demands of his rabid fans to return to the rock that made him famous, maybe the Man in Black can now return with dignity to Blackmore’s Night, having scratched that itch both for himself and for all of us.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
Album review (Live In Birmingham 2016)
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