Words by Ali Cooper. All photos by Sandra Sorenson.
Stone Free Festival promises an incredible weekend of musical appreciation and nostalgia for fun-loving fans who’d rather stay dry for the duration of a festival, based in the towering venue that is London’s O2 Arena. That said, crowds already begin grumbling about extortionate ticket prices before any act takes to the stage. Adding insult to the costly entrance fee, every stage besides the main arena is accessible without even holding a ticket, made evident by the emergence of the aptly named Entrance Stage which quite simply stands in the entrance of the O2 Arena. Greenwich visitors are swiftly greeted by the Lounge Kittens’ (7) a-cappella rendition of Steel Panther’s explosive ‘Glory Hole’.
The Lounge Kittens are always welcome at any party we go to.
The so-called VIP vinyl fair too remains open to the public, proffering a paltry selection that most ‘70s garages could put to shame. Visitors leave empty-handed as the merchandise stands admit their stock is minuscule, many feel obliged to pay £5 for a canvas bag to hold their purchased vinyl which will quite likely emerge broken from the arena’s antics later in the day. True to the festival nature, however, the bar prices remain as obscene as any field-dwelling event, demanding £2.50 for drinking water and distributing drinks vendors throughout the standing area hell-bent on pestering visitors while they’re trying to see the acts on the stage before them. Evident of the poor ticket sales for Stone Free Festival, the O2’s vast rear seating areas are filled instead with large inflatables reminiscent of a budget art exhibition. With very few seats taken throughout the night and the venue’s standing area vacuous and dithering, there’s a lot to complain about before the music even begins.
Blackberry Smoke (6) make their entrance 15 minutes late due to a customs issue, which can only be a good thing given the dwindling numbers in the arena. Opening with the catchy singalong ‘Fire In The Hole’, it’s lucky the boys on stage seem impervious to the nonchalant crowd and continue to give their all regardless. Quite skilfully suited to the relaxed vibe of the event so far, ‘Rock and Roll Again’ shows off their instrumental coordination before leading into their signature mix of own track ‘Sleeping Dogs’ and timeless Led Zeppelin ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’. While the present numbers appear disheartened, Atlanta’s rockers seem unphased and perform as tightly as ever.
Apocalyptica (7) snatch all semblance of tranquillity from the O2 with their instantly magnetic stage presence, booming into their majestic cover of Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’. The crowd appears baffled by the string composition of this heavy metal outfit, but all tension soon whisks away thanks to frontman Eicca Toppinen and his welcome appeals for screams from a crowd that a mere few minutes ago still felt the financial pinch of the event. Celebrating 20 years since their formation, familiar blasts of ‘I’m Not Jesus’ and ‘Shadowmaker’ are delivered with broad smiles and emphatic confidence in their craft. Another storming cover of Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’ blasts through the vast arena to close the curtain on a band that took the indifferent O2 crowd by storm, one smoke machine and windmill at a time.
Apocalyptica: Cello’s are not played like this in school music lessons….
Classic rock stormers The Darkness (8) greet the now swelling crowd with a punchy rendition of new banger ‘Barbarian’. Testament to their enduring legacy, however, classic tracks ‘Growing On Me’ and ‘One Way Ticket’ receive a much warmer welcome than more recent addition ‘Mudslide’. As bold frontman Justin Hawkins attempts to guess audience member’s names, it’s a welcome sight to see Queen legend Roger Taylor’s son Rufus behind the skins, slotting into the line-up beautifully with his masterful presence. Appropriately, ‘One Way Ticket’ speaks volumes for the venue’s organisation of the festival, but it’s not long before balladic ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’ swathes the crowd in Dan Hawkins’ remarkable solo. The O2 fills with palpable nostalgia as the entire venue belts back those traditional top notes of ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’, even though it’s only Justin himself that can pull them off phenomenally.
Still Lowestoft’s most famous catsuit wearing resident.
A moderate crowd remains to see Alice Cooper (9) close Stone Free on the right note, despite dwindling after The Darkness’ departure. Opening to the familiar shoutalongs ‘The Black Widow’ and ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’, the present demographic appears perplexed at the antics on stage. Confrontations and drunken cup throwing ensues throughout the standing area, and it’s clear a number of the audience leave early out of fear for their own safety as security staff turn a blind eye. However, powerful renditions of nostalgic numbers ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Poison’ on stage try their best to distract from the unsettled crowd. Alice’s blood-curdling trip to the guillotine receives rapturous applause and ‘Feed My Frankenstein’ is met with jaws on the floor, while the venue falls deathly silent as our frontman pleads for freedom throughout ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry’. Poignant covers of The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’ and Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ steal the show for moments of mortal reflection commonplace in Cooper’s performances, a stark reminder that his musical generation has suffered great losses this year alone. The anthemic ‘I’m Eighteen’ and ‘School’s Out’ draw a jam-packed show to a close as the crowd fortunately calms, before masked versions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fight it out over an underwhelming encore of ‘Elected’. “You think you’ve got problems,” Alice shouts – that’s silenced the Brexiteers for a moment.
Alice Cooper: The Dark Lord cometh…
Despite overwhelmingly poor organisation, terrible hospitality and ridiculous prices, the bands appearing on Saturday’s diverse Stone Free line-up performed their utmost for a crowd that had been visibly let down by a festival promising a carefree weekend. Providing the financially-induced thirst and crowd-initiated fear hasn’t already exhausted you, Alice Cooper’s forever energetic theatrics should finish you off.