LIVE: Stone Free Festival – London O2 Arena, 17/6/2017

This is the second year that the Stone Free Festival’s been running at the O2. Last year was very much a festival of two halves with a well-attended Saturday featuring the likes of Alice Cooper, The Darkness, Therapy? and Michael Monroe and a Sunday featuring mainly ’70s prog rock bands which… erm, didn’t quite pull in as many punters as the Saturday did.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that the festival this year has been condensed into a single day affair. Unfortunately though, the timing couldn’t have been worse as shortly after the festival was confirmed, Guns ‘n’ Roses announced that they would be playing their first UK gig since Axl and Slash patched up their differences at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford the same day, and The Stone Roses announced their first London gig for almost half a decade at Wembley Stadium. Ouch. Given that it’s up against such high-profile competition, I’m actually quite pleasantly surprised that the attendance, while some way short of the amount who were here to see the Coop last year, is at least fairly reasonable with the early afternoon bands at the Indigo venue playing to a packed out audience (although the number of empty seats in the Arena come the evening is definitely rather noticeable).

Anyway, on to matters musical – for your correspondent, the day begins with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, a band who I have to be honest and say that I only really know one song by. Their set is certainly a bit of a curio, containing a lot of very lengthy psychedelic workouts, but they do at least play the big hit Fire at the end, although in a slightly truncated version, ironically due to time restrictions. Still, you have to give kudos to any guy who’s still up there in his mid-’70s on the back of a near fifty-year career as Brown is.

It’s Gun who are left to kickstart the day properly, and while I have to be honest and say I always considered them one of the more second division Britrock bands of the early ’90s (see also Thunder, Little Angels etc) who lacked the sparkle of the likes of The Quireboys and The Dogs D’Amour, and the muscle of The Almighty, they give a good account of themselves today with the likes of Better Days, Welcome To The Real World and a fierce Steal Your Fire sounding a lot better than you probably remember them. Finishing off with the anthemic Shame On You, they’re a band I’d happily go and see again on this showing.

The last time I saw The Answer was in Leeds about ten years ago and my main memory of them was that they were so dull that I ended up getting heroically drunk at the bar for want of something better to do, and was found later that night slumped in a corner singing along to Bang Bang by Danger Danger at the post-gig ’80s rock disco. Over a decade later and unfortunately I have to say that they’re still decidedly underwhelming. They’re definitely no slouches when it comes to musical ability, but there’s just no originality in there at all, simply a bunch of badly xeroxed Led Zeppelin tunes (Under The Sky, Never Too Late etc) all of which are pretty much interchangeable and unremarkable. And given that I always found Zep to be excruciatingly dull as well (so sue me), I’m afraid this was never likely to sail well with me. So, moving swiftly on…

The main reason I was tempted along today was for Blue Öyster Cult, a band who I’ve been hoping to see live now for more than a decade. They’re currently on a 45th anniversary tour of their first album and tonight’s set consists of said first album in its entirety, which is a good choice for one of your own gigs, but less so for a festival when the audience isn’t likely to be mostly consisting of your own die-hards. It’s not to knock the album, but while it’s a good one (as evidenced by the pounding Cities On Flame With Rock ‘n’ Roll and Transmaniacom MC and the sinister epic Then Came The Last Days Of May), they’ve done better, and it’s a bit frustrating to have to be kept waiting through filler tracks like Before The Kiss, A Redcap and She’s As Beautiful As A Foot til the encore for the greatest hits part. Still, we get Burnin’ For You, Godzilla and Don’t Fear The Reaper (of course) so they’re forgiven. I’d definitely be happy to go and see BOC again, but I think I might have to be careful at picking a show where they play the hits next time.

The unexpected surprise of the day are The Sweet over in the main arena. I know that every band with a greatest hits package out these days uses the old phrase “you know more of these songs than you think you do”, but The Sweet were arguably the buggers that invented that concept. Guitarist Andy Scott may now be the only remaining member of the group, but the 21st century line-up blast through the classic likes of Action, Fox On The Run, Hellraiser, The Six Teens, Teenage Rampage, and Wig Wam Bam with an impressive energy, and the crowd bellowing the lyrics along. By the time they close with Blockbuster and Ballroom Blitz, they’ve more than confirmed they’re worthy of their high placing on the bill. Good stuff.

Like The Sweet, headliners Rainbow are another band in the “only one original member” zone with Ritchie Blackmore continuing to keep the flame alive since the band reformed a couple of years ago. I do like a lot of Rainbow’s old stuff though, so was interested to see how they would bear up. The big surprise comes when they chuck out their biggest hits very early on in the set with I Surrender being the second song in and Since You’ve Been Gone (in an annoyingly much-shortened version) following it just a couple of songs later. With the best known songs used up so early, it makes for a bit of a frustrating set to be honest, though the likes of Man On The Silver Mountain, All Night Long and Black Night (as you could probably have guessed, there’s a few Deep Purple songs in there also) do work well.

However, the constant breaking up of the set with solos (something which was also a bit of a downer when I went to see fellow Deep Purple alumni Whitesnake last year at Ramblin’ Man) often kills the momentum stone dead. Guitar solos for Blackmore are to be expected obviously, but a five minute drum solo followed by a five minute keyboard solo? No need. It’s frustrating because combined with some of the lengthier (though still good) songs such as Child In Time and Stargazer, it makes the set feel like it’s absolutely plodding by at times. New singer Ronnie Romero gives a decent account of himself (and let’s be honest, when you’re stepping into shoes previously filled by the likes of Ronnie James Dio and Graham Bonnet, it’s not an enviable position to be in) but a lot of the time the other band members, especially Blackmore, just look bored, and it’s a bit of an anticlimax to end the night on.

Overall thoughts then? Well, as an afternoon’s entertainment it was okay I suppose. And to be honest, given the competition elsewhere in town tonight, this was always going to be a bit of a struggle, especially with the bill consisting in the main of much older bands than last year’s did. Certainly, The Sweet gave a good account of themselves and were probably my band of the day, with BOC and Gun both being enjoyable also. It’ll be interesting to see if Stone Free survives into its third year, but if it does, there’s probably quite a bit to think about as to how they can make it a bit of a better draw next year. We await with interest…

Words Andy Close, photo credit for all images P.G. Brunelli.