The inaugural Stone Free Festival took place in 2016 with Alice Cooper and The Darkness as headliners. This year, guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore’s recently reformed Rainbow took centre stage following an afternoon of rock performed on two different stages.
The Big Entrance Stage, just on the right as you go into the O2, was where I saw my first act of the day: Tequila Mockingbyrd, a fiery female trio from Melbourne, Australia. Estelle (lead Vocals, guitar), Jess (bass, backing vocals) and Josie (drums, backing vocals) succeeded in getting the crowd pumped up with their powerful riffs and catchy choruses.
The artist’s quirky dance moves and powerful voice defied his age, and his antics with the keyboard player, where he took the instrument off its stand and moved it up and down while the musician played on, leaping up and down with astonishing agility, was particularly entertaining.
Up next were GUN, a hard rock band from Scotland who enjoyed the bulk of their hits in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. “Don’t Say It’s Over,” from 1994, was one of them and was warmly received, even though the crowd was fairly subdued. “Word Up,” a number eight hit, also in 1994, was brilliant, while the emphatic “Hold Your Head Up” was dedicated to the people of London.
“Favourite Pleasures,” the title track of their soon-to-be-released new album (their seventh), had a great vibe to it and singer Dante Gizzi expressed pride in the fact it had been added to the Planet Rock playlist. The last song of a solid set was a rousing cover of The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”
It was good, but I have to say I preferred “Under the Sky,” the first track from their debut, 2006’s Rise. Another ‘oldie’, “Never too Late” (also from that stunning first LP), was another corker. “Leave it to the paddies to pick the warmest day of the year for our only indoor festival of the year!” joked lead singer Cormac Neeson.
Another new song, “Thief of Light,” was dedicated to London and Manchester and “Spectacular” was excellent and suitably anthemic, further showcasing Neeson’s impressive vocal range. Although I still love The Answer, I can’t help but think I was more blown away by them in 2007. It’s a cliché to say it, but I think I prefer their older stuff!
Singer/guitarist Eric Bloom, a member since 1969, explained afterwards that the group doesn’t tend to play a lot of the stuff off its debut album very often. “Just for the UK!” he proclaimed. I found a few of the songs from the first album a bit too drawn out and psychedelic for my tastes; I much preferred the short, sharp, shooting-straight-from-the-hip rock of “Godzilla” and “Burnin’ for You.”
The band’s signature tune is “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” one of the all-time classic rock standards, dedicated tonight to iconic actors English Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The encore consisted of “Tattoo Vampire” and “Hot Rails to Hell” and then it was off the stage to rapturous applause and further cries of “We love you Buck!”
That said, I quite liked “Wig-Wam Bam” and “Little Willy,” two song everyone sings along to, “no matter what it says on their t-shirt,” noted Scott. But the standout for me – largely thanks to its synth riff – was “Love Is Like Oxygen.” Two of Sweet’s best known songs, “Blockbuster” (complete with siren) and “Ballroom Blitz” closed out their well-received performance.
Ritchie Blackmore’s new lineup of Rainbow, together since 2015, consists of Swedish keyboard player and pianist Jens Johansson, bass player Bob Nouveau, drummer David Keith and Chilean vocalist Ronnie Romero. Ahead of their performance, a giant British flag appeared on the video screen to the stirring strains of “Land of Hope and Glory.”
Photographs of old tickets for Rainbow gigs then flashed up, before an instrumental of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gave way to “Spotlight Kid” off 1981’s Difficult to Cure. Then came my favourite song of the evening – and of the whole day, in fact, “I Surrender,” wonderfully sung by Romero.
Rainbow’s most famous song is almost certainly “Since You’ve Been Gone” and, touchingly, its writer, Russ Ballard, was brought out to play on it. The pace was slowed down beautifully on Deep Purple’s “Soldier of Fortune,” which saw Blackmore strum an acoustic guitar while seated.
The rather eccentric figure of Blackmore (dressed all in black and with red shoes) didn’t speak into the microphone at all and communicated with the band and the audience instead through hand gestures.
His playing was pretty good and very fluid throughout, though the instrumental “Difficult to Cure” went on for far too long and almost sent me to sleep. The drum solo following “Still I’m Sad” was also unnecessary – still, as someone who dislikes drum solos I’m never going to approve!
Although I felt a little ‘rocked out’ by the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, discovering new bands, reconnecting with old favourites and adding Ritchie Blackmore’s name to the list of guitar heroes I’ve been fortunate enough to see perform live. I’m already looking forward to seeing who’ll be rocking the O2 this time next year.