Review: Stone Free Festival – 02 Arena London, June 16-17 2018


Well, here we are again. Stone Free no. 3.

Obviously, it’s not my intention to deliver a report on the entire festival: for a start, half of Sunday’s acts, even louche yacht-progger Roger Hodgson, fall way outside the Reprobatory remit, and even if they didn’t, there’d still be far too much to cover within the allotted space. What I can and will provide, however, is a considered overview of a show that, whilst spectacular in several respects, fell tragically short in others- and highlighted yet again the pleasures and pitfalls of the current UK rock scene in equal measure.

On the positive side, the bill is both noticeably and laudably diverse: with so many differing styles of rock to choose from, there’s a little something for everyone here, rendering it a great shame that my own remote location prevents me from arriving in time to experience it all. I would really have liked, for instance, to have seen former Groop Dogdriller/Black Spider Pete Spiby however, not even the offer of a threesome with Keeley Hawes and Montserrat Lombard could have dragged my arse to SE10 at that time in the morning, and that, duckies, is that. Instead, the first band to slap me round the chops on Saturday are are my old mates Warrior Soul (although technically, I only recognise frontman Kory Clarke, the rest of the lineup seemingly consisting of Random Tattooed Blokes 1-4) who’ve arrived to bestow a dose of sleazay Noo Yawk Cidday punk ‘pon proceedings. And much-needed it is too.

Naturally, Clarke’s venomous anarcho-political tinge still remains: 27 years ago, “WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT AND WE ROCK N ROLL” was their rallying battlecry, and now, it’s “FUCK TRUMP AND THE AMERICAN IDOL!! FUCK TRUMP AND THE AMERICAN IDOL!” Same shit, different name: but as long as Kory exists, Warrior Soul will always be a professional thorn in the establishment’s arse, and that’s fine by me. True, I would have liked a little more variance in pace, and maybe more than two songs (Rocket Engines and Ass Kickin) from anything other than the new album: however, if they were looking to administer a short sharp cuban-heeled blow to the head, then they achieved just that, and in doing so, incited me to take my first paracetamol of the day (always a good sign)

Not even hailing from the same region as Stone Broken can persuade me to actually watch them, which means there’s ample time for dinner and libations before Orange Goblin. Provided we can get in, that is, as their popularity seems to have drastically surged of late. Still, it’s not like they don’t deserve it – after 25 years, the British public is finally beginning to wake up to the fact that in the absence of a Sabbath or Motorhead, and with Priest and Saxon slowly ‘winding down operations’, the Walthamstow quartet are this country’s logical successors to the title of ‘best classic heavy metal band’.

Not only that, but with their love of bikes, booze, birds and occult imagery, they’re probably – alongside the likes of the Damned, the Dwarves, Zeke, Killing Joke, Pentagram, Ghost, Goat and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – an ideal flagship band for this magazine. Though they may not actually worship the devil (or practice any esoteric doctrine for that matter) they’re nevertheless probably far more conversant with the Horned One’s relevance to rock’n’roll than half the bands who claim to: moreover, they know their way round a fair few slashers, Hammers and gialli, as vocalist Ben Ward’s cry of “ARE THERE ANY HORROR FILM FANS OUT THERE!!” proudly reinforces. And so they should: visually, they’re the gangs from Death Car On The Freeway, Shanks and The Northville Cemetery Massacre, the sinister hippies lurking in the Ally Pally of A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin or the Essex countryside of Deviation, the undead ghostly bikers of Psychomania and the mysterious longhairs lurking in Count Yorga’s Frisco basement. They’re even the incredible disappearing Verne Brothers from Black Carrion, except that instead of lame-arse rockabilly covers, they play pummelling stoner metal. And now, they want YOU to get involved.

You don’t come to a fucking heavy metal concert to sit daahn, fahking stand up” bellows Ward before Some You Win Some You Lose: meanwhile, in the background, diminutively demonic riffmeister Joe Hoare sneakily and deliberately buggers up his pedals just so he can create sufficient chaos to momentarily upstage his gargantuan bandmate. Behind them, bassist Martyn Millard and drummer Chris Turner attack their instruments like ravenous denizens of Sawney Bean’s cannibal clan: the fact that the Gobboes are now finally popular enough to fill the Indigo with this tomfoolery is mightily impressive, although it’s admittedly slightly less fun for those of us forced to sit upstairs in vertigo-inducing balcony seats. Of course, I don’t begrudge them an iota of their success- I just wish that it was occurring in a venue with better organisation (sending you up two flights of stairs just to come back down another is simply taking the piss) and far more efficient entrances and exits. On which subject…

Officially, the closure of the Indigo at 6pm and the opening of the main arena at 6.25 should leave fans well-sufficient leeway to move from one to t’other (possibly even nipping outside for a fag first) in time for LA sleazemongers Buckcherry. Unfortunately, at least for anyone who doesn’t happen to have a secret career as a Timelord, this isn’t quite how things work out – particularly as someone within the festival’s so-called ‘operational matrix’ has deemed it a good idea to make all standing patrons of the country’s largest arena enter through one trifurcated entrance at the extreme far end of the complex.

This is, of course, extremely logical, and makes perfect sense: only joking, it’s bollocks. Moreover, it’s utterly inexplicable – especially taking into account that the ongoing threat of terrorism in the capital means the average bag-check takes twice as long as it used to these days anyway. Obviously, because I’m unaware whether the promoters (Kilimanjaro) or venue owners (02) are responsible, this isn’t about blame-apportioning: the simple fact of the matter, however, is that whoever’s idea it is, it effectively means hardly anybody that wants to see Josh Todd’s gang actually manages to do so, and by the time most of us eventually meander in (two songs from the end of their set) the arena is still less than a third full.

Thus, while I’d love to wax lyrical about their ‘high-octane, dirty, seedy rock’n’roll’, I genuinely can’t: instead, you’ll simply have to imagine your very own gig, because, thanks to the appalling lack of planning displayed therein, that’s precisely what I (alongside about six other writers and several hundred fans) end up having to do. Allegedly, or so we’re told later, the queue can be jumped by anyone with a red wristband: yet seeing as you still have to queue to obtain those, I find this extremely hard to believe, and the fact that no information is given pertaining to such details certainly doesn’t help matters. Another major snafu: or, to put it another way, a further glaring example of the gaping chasm betwixt the ‘freedom’ celebrated in the festival’s name and what it actually represents.

If there’s one silver lining to be derived from the above fiasco, though, it’s that having learnt my unfortunate lesson, I stay stock-still for the duration of Megadeth – and end up becoming a fan again for the first time in 20 years. Truly, Mustaine and his gang were beyond magnificent: with a grasp of utter showmanship (far more than I remember them having during their heyday, in fact) and backdrops almost imaginative enough to qualify as ‘pure cinema’, they reminded me why, for all my psych-garage-punk-goth-indie leanings, I will always love Metaaaaaaaaaaaaaal. For roughly 90 minutes, they spit out one classic Thrash anthem (Hangar 18, Symphony Of Destruction, Wake Up Dead, Peace Sells, Sweating Bullets) after another with the precision of skilled marksmen: the real highlights, however, arrive via the more recent Dystopia (replete with the best lights I’ve seen outside a Floyd concert) and two long-neglected, ancient entries, Mechanix and Rattlehead (the latter notorious for its skilful rhyming couplet of “a dose of Metal you need/ to bang your head til you bleed”). I couldn’t agree more.

And, if they’re great, the Scorpions are even better. True, it’s impossible to discuss them these days without descending into a litany of daft quotes about “turning ze schpotlights on ze peeple” or how “whar garnar harf sarm farn tanart”, and I could perhaps do without that song (you know the one I mean) but for nearly two hours, they present the quintessential melodic metal experience, with Blackout, Big City Nights, The Zoo, Coast To Coast, ultimate cock-rock anthem Tease Me Please Me, supreme power ballad Still Lovin’ You and the reggae-inflected Is There Anybody There stirring loins and thudding chests in rousing union. There’s even time for a visit to the early Seventies, in a medley featuring excerpts from Steamrock Fever, Top Of The Bill and Speedy’s Coming“you live in his arse” – and despite clearly sailing well over the heads of the Steel Panther generation, it suits the massed retro-headbanger contingent, of which there are many, to a tee. Just be thankful someone decided against displaying the original Virgin Killer cover on the backdrops.

Klaus’ vocals are, for a man pushing 70, incredible: Rudy and Mathias’ scything rifferama and colourful leathers still define everything that first made this music fascinating to my teenage self in ‘88, and it’s a joy to see the insufferable twat that was James Kottak finally replaced by a likeable drummer, namely ex-King Diamond/Dokken/Motorhead man Mikkey Dee. He thruds! He levitates! He plays a shiny blue kit!! And, even more amazingly, he leads the band in a storming cover of Overkill as a tribute to his departed friend Lemmy (nice touch). Annoyingly, in yet another example of the inexplicably poor organisational skills on show, all bars within the stadium by close about 10.15, which again (a) shows little respect for the audience and (b) majorly contradicts the freedom, liberty and “vind of change” of vhich ze Schcorps sing – but nevertheless, I came here to rock like a hurricane, and I’ll be fucked if anyone’s going to stop me enjoying myself now.

Besides, there’s always the aftershow, thrown by Camden-based hair metal covers act Shot Through The Heart. The brainchild of Sisters Of Mercy guitarist/Decadence DJ Ben Christo, the band’s own monthly club night has proved a vital force in encouraging young London-based glam, sleaze and AOR musicians to play and jam together, and could be seen as one of the few things still keeping the capital’s once-proudly-decadent rock nightlife alive: the fact that they’re all shit-hot musicians doesn’t hurt either, although while it’s undeniably fun watching them play the assorted hits of Whitesnake, Winger, Alice Cooper et al, what we really want to do is dance to the originals. And, eventually, that’s what we end up enjoying the most, as Christo spins Jovi, GnR, the Cult, Kiss and a dozen other struttin’ faves until 2 am: I must be pissed, as I even boogie to Leppard’s Let’s Get Rocked (a song I’ve always despised) but on the other hand, given preceding events, any attempt to reclaim our liberties – even if it means frugging to Joe Elliott’s shittest ever composition – is probably worthwhile. Or, as the final selection of the night would have it, “I wanna rock” In any case, there’s always tomorrow…

And there’s always Ginger Wildheart. To describe the fiftysomething Geordie rocker as ‘volatile’ would be something of an understatement: it’s been less than a year since he attempted suicide in an Irish jail, and whenever one speaks of him now, the conversation is invariably always pervaded by an undercurrent of concern for his wellbeing. Today, however, despite the seething undercurrent of hatred and bile that perpetually permeates his lyrics (even during a harmony-vocal laden semi-acoustic set) he’s on sparklingly tip-top form: if truth be known, I haven’t seen him look so pleased with himself in about 16 years (not since, in fact, that legendary Barfly show featuring himself and Random Jon Poole on, among other things, impromptu Focus covers) His current band, featuring Wolfsbane guitarist Jase Edwards and beautiful backing vocalist Sofia, are probably the best he’s ever had outside the Wildhearts themselves: the new material (Toxins & Tea, Paying It Forward) is melodically outstanding, and while I could admittedly do without the political sloganeering at this time in the afternoon, there probably isn’t anyone better qualified to inherit the folk-punk mantle of the late Joe Strummer (albeit with even more talent) than him.

Tyketto, by comparison, are never going to be angry or raggle-taggle in any way – much like FM or Hardline, the two-fifths-Noo Yawker, three-fifths Cockney quintet purvey a neat line in raunchy AOR (mistakenly introduced by the airhead compere as “glam”) and though they boast a keyboardist with a Mohawk, it’s pretty safe to assume that for Danny Vaughn and his pals, ‘punk’ is simply something that happened to other people. After all, the band’s very raison d’etre since 1990’s ball-busting Don’t Come Easy debut has been their unshakeable belief in this music: even if it ironically meant relocating to the most non-rock-friendly country in the world (ie this one) to play it, they still did it, and though a fair quota of tuneage from latest album Reach rears its tousled bonce, it’s still the early classics that touch people most. Burning Down Inside, Wings, Lay Your Body Down and the evergreen Forever Young are practical masterclasses in their own subgenre: though they’ll never be ‘sleaze’, they’re about as down, dirty and suggestive as any AOR act (except the notorious Danger Danger) will ever get, and, they certainly didn’t soundtrack my big-haired, bird-pulling, dancefloor-strutting late teens and early twenties for nothing. Ah, nostalgia.

Once regarded (alongside Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride) as the frontrunners of the ‘miserable Northern doom’ movement, Scousers Anathema have certainly progressed over the last 25 years: indeed, though they’re still not averse to a chunky, meaty riff or two, it’s pretty safe to say they’ve conclusively thrown off the shackles of that genre and replaced it with something far more subtle and textural. Of course, not everyone approves of this (least of all Berkshire doomsters Pantheist, who, having read Danny Cavanagh’s online joy at seeing the band’s albums ‘removed from the HMV metal section at last’, sent the frontman some frankly hilarious tweets in response) but I happen to think they do it incredibly well, and though their sombre pianistics may occasionally err a little too close to the Keane/Radiohead dimension, the likes of Distant Satellites, Closer and Untouchable still plant enough of an army-booted leg in the goth sensibility of old to retain their relevance to ‘our’ people. Moreover, the fact that the organisers now deem them worthy of opening the second day’s main arena frolics (don’t worry, everyone was seated, so we actually saw them this time) speaks shimmering portentous volumes.

Sadly, that’s more or less it: I’d love to describe in detail the awesome slide guitaring of Brummie axe goddess Joanne Shaw Taylor and Winery Dogs mainman Richie Kotzen, discuss at length how Roger Hodgson’s supreme palm-tree yacht-proggery made jaws drop and voices scream notes hitherto believed impossible in perfect harmony (“that’s it”, quoth my noticeably over-excited best mate Rosie, “we’re forming a fucking band that looks and sounds exactly like THIS!!!”) or how Yes Featuring A.R.W. (as opposed to the ‘other’ Yes) blew our minds with that perfect combination of widdly and melody that they and only they have ever successfully achieved (yet again) but not in this publication.

As for the festival itself, though, there’s plenty to say: put simply, it’s the third Stone Free in as many years to have underperformed commercially, and whilst certain bands (Scorps, Megadeth, Hodgson and Yes/ARW in particular) proved fair-size crowd pullers, there were other times when comments such as “I’ve never seen it so empty in here” and vice versa were heard emanating from certain well-informed sources in attendance. And I dare say a fair few of those were competition winners, purchasers of Groupon tickets or guests like myself. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed almost everything I saw or heard, and at least two performances ascended to godlike: it’s simply that yet again (and there’s no polite way of saying this without upsetting at least one person, so to hell with it) the paucity of the budget still stuck out a mile.

Sure, I’m a massive fan of half the artists on the bill – but I’m also a fucking journalist, which renders my tastes obsolete in financial terms. And while, individually, those acts are brilliant, together, they just aren’t capable of persuading the casual rock fan to part with between 100 and 200 quid (plus beer, food, accommodation, transport etc) for a weekend in what is essentially the set of THX 1138 crossed with an outsized Center Parcs (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing as it goes, I rather like dystopian scifi myself) Ultimately, however, the choice of venue matters far less than the gigantic elephant stood within it: namely that, just as with Ramblin’ Man, the struggle to find an affordable headliner or special guest that will actually draw a sizeable audience (and aren’t already all dead) gets harder and harder every year. Furthermore, it’s a predicament of which the punters are fast becoming just as aware as we writers.

It’s not even as if there are many latterday acts capable of carrying the torch: despite a slight recent renaissance, The Darkness aren’t anywhere near as big as they were 15 years ago, White Denim have gone all indie-hipster, Steven Wilson has just gone indie, Black Star Riders are merely a regrouped Thin Lizzy only far less interesting, and Black Stone Cherry, though undoubtedly the biggest of the lot, are pants. A description which, sadly, I’d also apply to most bands on the ‘small’ stage outside the main entrance: the world needs yet more uninspired Zep, Skynyrd, ‘DC and Sabbath clones like it needs a dose of the clap, although at least with the latter, you get a hard fuck first. There are several great contemporary outfits out there, of course – Cats In Space, King King, Vintage Trouble, Asomvel, Guida, Deadcuts, Moon Duo, Horisont – but most of them are older than me, and I’m in my sodding 40s!! Who sucked all the youthful energy out of rock’n’roll?

For all that, I see no reason why Stone Free, blessed with fortuitous luck, shouldn’t last a fair while yet – but if it doesn’t get its act together re venue access (“I’ve checked into airports faster”, says an anonymous journo of my acquaintance) thereby resulting in a repeat of what shall henceforth be referred to as ‘Buckcherrygate’, then to quote the Metaaal God himself, “some heads are gonna roll”. Again, it isn’t polite Southern nancies like me you have to worry about: think more about the gathering crowds of Northerners and Scots stood behind me, who’d paid a small fortune including hotels and were figuratively spitting razors as they queued interminably just to hear Crazy Bitch followed by “thankyou goodnight”. Trust me, I wouldn’t like to annoy them, and I’m 6 foot 4. On the other hand, maybe when they’ve finally finished building the infernal thing (and on that note, where did the legendary ‘grassy knoll’ opposite Tescos disappear to?) we’ll all be able to get in in under an hour. See you, hope springing eternal, in another 12 months….