Stone Free Festival
By ProgBlog, Jun 26 2016 10:08PM
This looked a very attractive prospect when it was first advertised so, having no recollection about the capacity of the O2 Arena and no idea about the likelihood of tickets selling out, emails and text messages were dispatched to friends and family in early April and four tickets were purchased (thanks for organising, Jim.) The last time I attended the O2 was to eat at one of the restaurants but I had also visited the Dome (as was) at the start of the millennium and witnessed The Story of Ovo, The Millennium Show with music written by Peter Gabriel.
I’ve written before about my preference for indoor festivals but this, the first Stone Free Festival, was being held in a venue that I’d consider to be a bit out of the way, served only by the Jubilee Line and one that was also getting on with its day-to-day business of being an entertainment and eating hub, so there wasn’t much of a festival feeling. Jim had organised meeting up at the Barclays Premier Lounge where we had complimentary hot/soft drinks and nibbles and though there were a series of other Festival events going on elsewhere around the site, we were only interested in the acts on the main stage, beginning with Wish You Were Here Symphonic, performed by the London Orion Orchestra (who would be appearing with Rick Wakeman later in the evening.)
I don’t know why I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the performance so much. I liked the way that Shine on You Crazy Diamond began with tuned percussion, mimicking Rick Wright’s barely perceptible twinkling, descending arpeggio, but this piece proved to be structurally suited to an orchestrated version and sensibly eschewed vocals, unlike the Orion Orchestra album version which features Alice Cooper (and who had headlined the previous day.) I don’t know if it’s a feature of orchestrated rock music in general or part of the transposition process, but I was reminded of passages on Sgt Pepper’s and Days of Future Passed, with the key changes providing some nice drama. The orchestra was augmented by guitars and featured vocals on Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and the title track, which didn’t convert so well to the orchestral format. The performance was concluded with a triumphant, truncated, vocal-less version of Eclipse. The inclusion of the orchestra in the programme was perfectly apt. This was an alternative way for fans to experience the album, exposing subtle nuances that may have been buried in the layers of the 1975 release. I’m not entirely sure that it would have been appropriate for classical music aficionados and it’s certainly not the first orchestral adaptation of a progressive rock album but it demonstrated that it’s not unreasonable to turn symphonic prog into symphonic orchestra music.
Introduced by a caped Jerry Ewing as one of the best prog guitarists, I thought the running order of the acts was somewhat awry with Steve Hackett appearing next as part of the Acolyte to Wolflight tour. Hackett is an artist that I’ve seen on a number of occasions but this was the first time since February 2012, when I went to see him at Brighton’s Komedia on the Breaking Waves tour that he played anything other than Genesis material. My favourite Hackett solo albums are Voyage of the Acolyte and Spectral Mornings and, after a technical glitch, he opened with Every Day, archetypal melodic Hackett. The acoustic Loving Sea from latest release Wolflight came next, followed by an undiluted prog duo of A Tower Struck Down and Shadow of the Hierophant; dark, brooding and complex. Nad Sylvan then came on stage for three Genesis tracks to finish the rather short but excellent set: Dance on a Volcano; The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Firth of Fifth. Hackett’s band is well versed in this material and it shows; the performance enhanced by Sylvan’s theatrical movements and some dramatic lighting and smoke. Hackett’s initial trouble with no signal, the malfunction of his tuning pedal and Nick Beggs’ signal problems when he switched to a double neck guitar could all have been minor mishaps from a gig in the 70s, overcome by the power of the music. It’s just a shame his set didn’t eat into the slot provided for Marillion, who were on stage next.
Apparently fresh from appearing alongside Queen at a festival in Switzerland, Ewing described Marillion as ‘prog rock royalty’ and I was looking forward to seeing a decent set. The only other time I’ve seen bits of Marillion was at 2010’s High Voltage but that performance was bleeding into the start time for ELP on the main festival stage and I don’t remember any of The Invisible Man or Neverland, two tracks that were played at both events. This show was spoiled by a poor, distorted sound that wasn’t helped by Steve Hogarth shouting, rather than singing. Not being over-familiar with the post-Fish repertoire, I found it surprising that the opening number The Invisible Man and the subsequent track, You’re Gone, both from 2004’s Marbles, sounded as though they featured rhythm machine. It was difficult to class any of the set as prog, other than the unexpected inclusion of neo-prog medley Kayleigh/Lavender/Heart of Lothian, so I was left feeling disappointed.
Headlining the day was Rick Wakeman, performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its entirety for the first time since the 1975 tour. I’ve seen Wakeman on a number of occasions, the first in Leeds in 1976 when he was promoting No Earthly Connection and the most recent performing the entire, reworked Journey to the Centre of the Earth at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014. There were a number of parallels between the Journey show and this one, with Stone Free seemingly created for the Arthurian epic. In both cases Wakeman provided more music and though a couple of years ago I questioned whether or not Journey was progressive rock, concluding that it was more musical theatre, only in a bad, Lloyd-Webber kind of way, I also wondered about the provenance of Myths and Legends. I have recently listened to the original recording a couple of times and, because the album was conceived as a studio piece, the singing is slightly better and I like the music more. The additional music on the updated version is not too bad but these tracks appear to have been written to highlight the vocal talents of Hayley Sanderson... only I don’t think she has a voice suited to prog and the lyrics are as bad as the originals; Merlin the Magician was spoiled by the addition of vocals.
Permanently ensconced behind his keyboard rig until coming down to take a bow at the conclusion of the performance, sporting a green and silver cape, Wakeman played some awesome Moog parts (the original album is also full of them) but left the narrations to Ian Lavender, seated front left on the stage. There was no encore and I think the crowd were a bit bemused, clapping politely but not enthusiastically for a couple of minutes before the house lights went up; a damp squib of an ending.
Overall the gig was enjoyable but I’m left with doubts about Marillion and Wakeman, when it was the idea of seeing the live premiere of the expanded Myths and Legends that originally caught my attention. On the plus side, I know Hackett always gives a great performance and the symphonic Wish You Were Here is worth catching. It also rained but there was no mud...