It’s crazy to think that this is the first year of Stone Free Festival; a new indoor alternative music festival going over two days at the O2 Arena in London. Why is it crazy, you ask? In order to have the likes of rock legends Alice Cooper and Rick Wakeman headlining the show, one would assume that this is a well-accomplished festival that’s been going on for a number of years.

However, this is  clearly not the case. In its first year, it was of course in some ways going to be a test run. On entering the O2 it’s not necessarily obvious that a festival is taking place. The building is lined with restaurants inside and out, still accessible to the public. The only main signs of something going on are the crowds of people adorned with rock t-shirts and jackets, as well as a person selling programmes on a stand in the middle of the big open space for an extortionate amount of money, and the merchandise stand – but even that was tucked away towards the back.

The aptly named Entrance Stage was to the right of the entrance which made a nice introduction to the festival. Today, the lineup for this stage included some great upcoming bands such as Jack Francis, The RPM’s and Southampton-based female trio, The Lounge Kittens, who sang some interesting covers in their retro 3-part harmony style.

Just aound the corner, hidden away, was the Indigo Stage where you saw the likes of English and Northern Irish rockers, respectively, The Virginmarys and Therapy? The third out of four stages was the Speakeasy Stage where there was less playing music, and more talking about it. Alice Cooper gave a special interview to VIP ticket holders only, and music journalist David Quantick also gave a talk, as well as a comedic performance by Jarred Christmas, Nick Helm, John Hastings and Glenn Wool. All of these stages ended performances by around five o’clock in time for the main stage performances.

Stone Free Festival - London O2 Arena (18th June 2016) - LIVE REVIEW - PHOTO CREDIT SANDRA SORENSON

Photo credit Sandra Sorenson

For this date, Alice Cooper was to headline. The king of theatrical rock shows. Before Cooper was a great lineup of Blackberry Smoke, and Apocalyptica, followed by The Darkness. As you passed through the doors to enter the main arena, the first thing on the to do list for most was to grab a very overpriced drink along the way, before finding your seat or a good place to stand. A number of people gathered at the front of the stage, ready for the music to start, and in great preparation for being prime position to be totally immersed in the music.

American rock’n’rollers, Blackberry Smoke, from Atlanta, Georgia, kicked off the main event with their upbeat tracks and 70s vibes. Their old-school American rock sounds fitted the bill for the first act as it got people feeling good, moving around and getting into the flow of the evening. The involvement of piano sounds were a beautiful addition to their songs, giving their sound a bit of a country twang.

At this stage the arena was nowhere near full, but the small crowd that there was were already very much getting into the festival swing, swinging their hips and bobbing their heads as they cheered and clapped for the American rock’n’rollers. Playing songs such as ‘Fire in the Hole’, ‘Rock and Roll Again’ and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Sleeping Dogs / Your Time is Gonna Come’, Blackberry Smoke may not have been the most well known band in the line up, but they easily made a number of new fans during their short set.

Next on the list was Finnish 4-piece, Apocalyptica, where the crowd had grown a little more. For a band who plays some serious metal songs, you would not expect their instrument of choice. For those who have not heard or heard of Apocalyptica before, you may mistake their sound for a regular four-piece metal band with drums and three guitars. However, if you replace the electric guitars with cellos, you’ve got Apocalyptica.

With a number of Metallica covers including ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Seek and Destory’ from their ‘Plays Metallica by Four Cellos’ album, they were big crowd pleasers. American singer Franky Perez joined them on stage for a couple of songs but besides that, it was roughly 45 minutes of pure cello metal music. It was loud, intense and a fascinating watch.

Well-known British old-school rockers The Darkness followed the impressive performance of Apocalyptica. By this point, the standing area was a lot more full and the crowd a lot more rowdy. Arriving on stage 15 minutes late due to a slight run over of Apocalyptica, The Darkness finally entered the arena in their flamboyant outfits, ready to put on a show.

Frontman Justin Hawkins showed great stage presence throughout their shortened set, flouncing about across the stage, and interacting well with the crowd, throwing picks out early on and attempting to guess the names of people in the crowd (yet only being successful with the first).

Their general set was fun and full of energy. Hawkins being the showman that he is wouldn’t have allowed for anything less. Classic hits of theirs such as ‘Growing on Me’, ‘One Way Ticket’ and ‘Love is Only A Feeling’ got the whole room singing along. Squeezing in a few more songs such as ‘Black Shuck’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘Stuck in a Rut’ before ending with the almighty ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’, The Darkness gave a fantastic performance, with Hawkins’ high-pitched vocals that most of us couldn’t reach as much as we tried, being fully on point. The only downside to the performance was the disgruntled tone of Hawkins when explaining their short set due to “fucking Apocalyptica running over 15 minutes!” A disappointing end to such a fun and care-free performance.

Stone Free Festival - London O2 Arena (18th June 2016) - LIVE REVIEW - PHOTO CREDIT SANDRA SORENSON

Photo credit Sandra Sorenson

The highlight of the night, with best performance certainly deserving, was the shock rock legend himself, Alice Cooper. If you want to see a true rock show, then look no further. He may only be a couple of years off 70, but Cooper has not lost any effort in creating a brilliant fusion of music and theatrics in his show. Before he’d even entered the stage, his presence was already very much there with a huge backdrop of the upper half of his face, and spiders where his pupils would be, in which lights shone on creating an eery glow.

The show started with his own spoken intro referencing a black widow, aptly leading on to his first song ‘The Black Widow’ from his first solo album (but eighth studio album), ‘Welcome To My Nightmare’ (1975), at which point the back drop towards the front of the stage came down to reveal Cooper and his band. Following this came ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’, ‘Under My Wheels’ and ‘Public Animal #9’, which already gives an inclination that the setlist showed a great variety of songs from his numerous albums, meaning something to please all Alice Cooper fans.

His performance was full of energy, dotted with costume changes, and plenty of narrative. After playing his infamous song, ‘Poison’, which really got everyone up and singing, Cooper sang ‘Halo of Flies’ and disappeared off stage with the guitarists for the song to be finished with a fantastic drum solo. A few minutes later the guitarists returned to play along, followed by Cooper returning to the stage in a doctors uniform splattered with blood. ‘Feed My Frankenstein’ played whilst Cooper sang and acted out the character of Frankensteins’ creator, which ended with him being taken offstage and returning in a huge Frankenstein costume in which he walked around the stage a few times until the music had ended.

With yet another costume change under his belt, the set continued with songs such as ‘Cold Ethyl’, ‘Only Women Bleed’ and partial plays of ‘Killer’ and ‘I Love The Dead’, before another intro occurred, this time of ‘Raise the Dead’. This brought another scene acted out by Cooper and his wife Sheryl, who played a zombie nurse attempting to kill Cooper. This was the opener for the last section of the show in which Cooper and the band brought back to life four famous musicians and fellow rock legends through covering part of a famous song of theirs.

First was a very well done cover of ‘Pinball Wizard’ (The Who) celebrating Keith Moon, followed by ‘Fire’ by Jimi Hendrix, ‘Suffragette City’ by the late David Bowie, and finally, ’Ace of Spades’ (Motorhead) for Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister. A very nice touch. The show ended fantastically with a brilliant performance of ‘I’m Eighteen’ and ‘School’s Out’, and a special encore of ‘Elected’ to end a perfect night of old-school rock and metal. The crowd adored Cooper, with the majority of people adorning an Alice Cooper t-shirt or jacket. Everywhere you turned you’d see his face.

As the first year of Stone Free Festival, the day ran very smoothly and proved a huge hit with an extraordinary first line up. Nothing could beat the performance of Alice Cooper, but the line ups throughout the day, as well as the crowds around, proved that the festival had the potential to be a very successful one.

For one thing, it’s nice to not have to worry about what the weather’s going to do. Secondly, you have no worries about gross port-a-loos or camping arrangements. Stone Free gives rockers young and old the chance to share their true love for rock and metal music. The older generation tell the younger how this song came out when they were 24, and they remember playing that drum solo in their bedroom when they were 15, and how in the 40 years of watching that artist live they’d never seen them play that song before. The festival proves a great weekend for so many to enjoy, and one to definitely write home about.

This Stone Free Festival article was written by Alia Thomas, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse. Photo credit to all three images – Sandra Sorenson

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