Photo Credit Jamie MacMillan

Stone Free Festival – O2 Arena, London (17th June 2018)

With Saturday’s heavier lineup featuring blistering sets from Scorpions and Megadeth to name a few (which you can read about here), there was a lot to live up to tonight as Stone Free Festival shows off its proggier side.

With stages taking over the o2 Arena all weekend, you’d expect Stone Free Festival to be brimming with music fans, but the huge venue was surprisingly desolate, with the outdoor Orange Amplifiers stage bringing in a bigger audience than the entire inner venue by midday. This was shown on an even grander scale when Godsticks took to the 2500 capacity Indigo stage in front of an audience of about 30. Their proggy metal deserved a much bigger crowd and their fantastic set (which had shockingly good sound for the first act of the day) was one of the highlights of the day.

Bands were scattered around the o2 until Anathema took to the main stage at 4:50pm. Vambo provided some relatively bland rock on the Orange Amps stage but their huge sound was a testament to the quality of the amps that decorated the tiny stage. Over in All Bar One’s Richer Sounds Acoustic Stage, Just Like Fruit (who will become more relevant later) provided a fun set to another almost empty venue. Do they only like fruit, or do they think they’re similar to fruit? We may never know. Back over in the now very slowly filling Indigo, Ginger Wildheart took to the stage. Expecting an exciting set of glam rock history and crunchy riffs, we instead get a politicised, acoustic folk set complete with horrifically annoying backing track and very unnecessary backing vocalist. The audience seems disappointed about the Billy Bragg-esque set, but Wildheart just seems so lovely it’s impossible not to clap and laugh as he speaks between tracks. The Orange amps stage becomes home to another generic hard rock band when The Bad Flowers perform, though I guess you can’t beat AC/DC’s winning formula of a bluesy riff + overdrive. Finally, Richie Kotzen (ex-Poison and Mr Big) begins his headline set on the now respectably full Indigo stage, pumping out funky tunes and virtuosic guitar solos. The audience loves it and are willing to risk being late to Anathema in order to provide the ovation he deserves.

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Speaking of Anathema, their set is terrible. I’ve never seen the o2 arena so empty and uninterested, with people on their phones throughout, and a polite smattering of applause concluding every song rather than the expected resonant screams this venue normally provides. Their music is self-indulgent without the virtuosity or excitement that lets other bands get away with it and they choose songs that are quite simply just boring. Their set does nothing to help pump up the audience as it should. The excellent opening set of Godsticks would have fared much better on this stage. At least blues guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor is able to lift the mood back up with her astonishingly good guitar playing, husky voice and bubbly personality. Her set did eventually ware on a bit- one can only get so far with a slew of songs no one really knew, but it was still an indescribable improvement on Anathema and a set that regained the attention of the audience.

Then it was time for the portion of the evening everyone had been waiting for, Roger Hodgson of Supertramp, and eventually YES featuring ARW. Hodgson delivered a set that consciously delivered exactly as he knew everyone wanted. Built around Supertramp’s string of hits such as ‘School’, ‘The Logical Song’, ‘Breakfast In America’ and ‘Give A Little Bit’, while being permeated with some of the prog that this audience was hungry for, such as the excellent ‘Fools Overture’. His personality was alluring, and despite having toured on this music for many years, he seemed to still enjoy both performing and talking to his audience, and it shows in the faithful renditions of the tunes he still loves.

Finally, after a seemingly endless, yet perfectly on-time 30 minute wait the opening notes of ‘Cinema’ fill the o2 (which is somehow still not full, even with the top seating level closed) to the largest applause of the night. The band take to the stage adorned in a bizarre array of clothing. The tiny Jon Anderson is smiling in his white jacket, Trevor Rabin (whose presence is probably the reason for such an 80’s dominated set) is dressed in black, while Rick Wakeman is draped in a glorious, multicoloured cape. Filling in the missing parts of Alan White (on tour with the other YES) and the late Chris Squire is ever-smiling drummer Lou Molino III and young but very capable bassist Lee Pomeroy.

‘Hold On’ opened the show in style, before taking us back in time nearly 50 years to The Yes Album’s ‘Perpetual Change’. To hear Anderson’s voice singing these tracks is astonishing, even if he doesn’t quite have the ability to get to the top of his range anymore. This is made even clearer in the fact that they perform ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ in a slightly lower key than we might expect, but the harmonies are still warm and perfect, and the ability to write a melody so catchy that it can be repeated almost endlessly without ever turning stale. This is followed by a new arrangement of ‘And You And I’ which avoids the acoustic introduction, potentially so Rabin doesn’t give attention to the beautiful playing composed by Steve Howe all those years ago. Anderson, on the other hand, is very much happy to draw attention to his own playing of finger cymbals, as he closes his eyes in order to focus even more on the task at hand- tinkling some tiny cymbals together in front of thousands of people.

After the time signature blending madness of ‘Changes’, we move to the less complete area of the set. ‘Rhythm Of Love’ is made more interesting as two members of Just Like Fruit (told you they’d return to the story) vaulted the barrier of the side seats, sprinted up the floor seating and began to dance at the front of the stage until security took them away. Really weird. Some strange choices followed in the form of ‘I Am Waiting’ from the 1994 album ‘Talk’, and the 15 minute epic, ‘Awaken’ (bridged together by ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’). The former is just not as good as pretty much any other YES song that came before it, and if they had space for an extended prog masterpiece, you’d expect ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘Relayer’.

As the set draws to a close, ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ kicks in, and is made even more exciting as Wakeman is presented with a keytar, and walks into the middle of the seating area along with Rabin and continues his virtuosic solo the entire time, before a mini cover of Creams’ ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ sneaks in. ‘Roundabout’ is the unsurprising encore, and is again edited so as to not credit Howe with his contributions to the bands best loved work. However, everything else about the piece is executed perfectly, and to see Wakeman, arguably the best ever rock keyboard player, playing arguably the best ever keyboard solo, really was a stunningly indescribable thing to witness, and the feeling was mutual across the whole arena, who stood in unison throughout the entire track.

Stone Free was a total success. Despite the need to reconsider a few band choices, the often under-appreciated aspects that make up a festival all ran like clockwork. The sound quality was exceptional across every stage, and the timings were spot on everywhere, which is often not even the case when just one band is playing. Let’s hope it’s all replicated again next year.

YES Featuring ARW take Quintessential YES to the USA in August and September.