On the hottest day of the year so far can Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Sweet and Blue Öyster Cult pull off shows that are just as scorching? We head off to Stone Free Festival with high hopes for a first-class day of rock and roll.
It's the middle of June and the sun is blazing down as we emerge from North Greenwich tube, heading towards the O2 Arena. Beverages will be needed aplenty to keep us watered and in good spirits for what will most likely be an exhausting day. One of the good things about the O2 is the little Tesco near the tube exit, which means we don't have to spend too much cash before the day has even started. Over a fiver for a pint at one of the bars? No thanks, we'll stick to drinking £2 bottles of beer outside like dodgy street drinkers, before making our way into the venue.
Booze and weather issues aside, there is a whole host of entertainment lined up for us at Stone Free Festival- bands, spoken word, comedy and The Wicker Man! Fans are filtering in slowly, greeted by enthusiastic bands belting out tunes on the Orange Amp stage to the right and the obligatory All Bar One to the left. But hey, we're music lovers, so what better way to satisfy our needs than to flick through the numerous boxes of vinyl at the VIP Record Fair stall, whilst catching some of the acts playing next to the entrance. I must admit, we're not really entranced by said groups and spend the next couple of hours flitting in and out of the Indigo, various bars and Tesco in anticipation of Blue Öyster Cult, Sweet and Rainbow. A brief visit is paid to the 'Beer Garden', but the choice on offer isn't exactly overwhelming, so it's back to TGI Fridays and their colossal cocktails.
With the time nearing five in the evening, and with a growing determination not to miss Blue Öyster Cult (as unfortunately has been the case with Arthur Brown), we decide to queue up and head into the sweat pit... I mean, the Indigo!
Blue Öyster Cult
The band headlining the day’s performances on the Indigo O2 stage are untouchable veterans of the rock scene Blue Öyster Cult, now celebrating almost fifty years of dominance and understandably the venue quickly reaches capacity. The crowd is a distillation of what makes Stone Free what it is; gnarled, ageing bikers in their stinking leathers and bandanas stand alongside families with children in oversized Maiden and Sabbath shirts. As the music fades and the lights change, the applause and hollering issuing from the attendees dissolves into a hushed anticipation of what is about to happen. Eric Bloom (complete with iconic shades) and Buck Dharma, armed with his Swiss cheese guitar, cut a classic figure on the stage, and despite them both being card-carrying pensioners the next hour or so shows that they are in no way close to being put out to pasture. A short silence is broken by the cranking of guitar volume knobs and Bloom's introduction of the troupe, addressing the fact that the New Yorkers will be performing a full run-through of their eponymous debut album (only the second time this has been done, according to the band).
The stabs in the opening riff to ‘Transmaniacon MC’ and an uneasy-sounding roll down of the frets kick the event into life. These guys have a way of creating hard-hitting rock music that at once sounds characteristic of the genre but that also hints at an ever so slightly off-kilter flavour. This initiatory track showcases that this was key to their sound even in the embryonic stages.
Straight away, the competency of the musicians performing is staggering; with the bass holding a steady yet funky rhythm, knitting tightly with a drummer who is unafraid to deviate from what is played on the original recording but who is all about the feel of the material, thus embellishing not detracting from it. Set-staple ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ goes some way to exemplifying this point, not only because the band extend the middle section allowing for blazing, soulful solos but also because the solo from youngest member Richie Castellano sees him soldier on magnificently after snapping a string, garnering even more appreciation from the punters.
It could be said that besides crowd-pleaser ‘Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll’ Blue Öyster Cult’s debut album is not often cited as a contender for fan favourite, with their more beloved tracks appearing on later records but hearing it live demonstrates just how good this band was from the very beginning. It reinforces what makes up the BÖC sound; tales of drug deals gone fatally awry, bizarre biker gangs and an otherworldly quality that seems to sum up the hippy dreams of the 1960s falling to earth brutally in the wake of drug deaths, bad trips, political assassinations and murders.
The acid-freakery and twitchiness of the times shine through in the band’s encore with ‘Burnin’ for You’, ‘Godzilla’ and, of course, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ making an appearance; the latter bringing together Blue Öyster Cult’s prowess for songwriting and their ability to capture a dramatic eeriness that they mingle seamlessly with a nostalgic beauty. (4/5)
The Sweet could be the most misunderstood band of the 1970s. To many, they are perceived as little more than a tacky Glam Rock act. Their chart singles - generally dismissed as harmless bubblegum - don't do much to dispel this notion. However, those of us in the know have a different perspective. A string of powerful albums - from 1974's Sweet Fanny Adams through to 1978's Level Headed - and a selection of superb, raucous b-sides confidently argue the case for The Sweet as one of the most primal, versatile Hard Rock outfits of all time.
It has been years since Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker were taken from us, and Steve Priest currently resides in California, occasionally fronting his own version of the band. But what of guitarist Andy Scott's Sweet here in the UK? We are about to find out tonight.
Taking the stage with the evergreen 'Action', it's immediately clear that Mr Scott has assembled an impressive coterie of musicians around him. On drums we have NWOBHM veteran Bruce Bisland, Pete Lincoln (ex-Sailor) handles the bass and Tony O'Hora switches from guitar to keyboards (and back again) throughout. Lead vocal duties are shared between Lincoln and O'Hora, the former singing the lower register parts, while the latter fearlessly tackles the stratospheric, high-pitched moments. Sonically, does this talented crew resemble the classic Sweet line-up? No. But that would be a tall order in any circumstances.
had been much talk among Sweet fans that Stone Free would see a reinvigorated set by the group. There would be an emphasis on the heavier album tracks and somewhat less time given to the poppier material, we were told. To some degree, this speculation proves to be accurate, although it might be said that the selection process could have been a tad more ruthless. The likes of 'Teenage Rampage' and 'Little Willy' may be catchy, but do they have the same visceral impact as a 'Cockroach' or a 'Turn It Down' for this type of audience? Perhaps not. The inclusion of Hello/Ace Frehley chestnut 'New York Groove', combined with passages from Alicia Keys' 'Empire State Of Mind', is baffling at best.
Still, Mr Scott appears relaxed and convivial throughout, and as the set reaches its conclusion with the inevitable one-two finale of 'Blockbuster' and 'Ballroom Blitz', the faithful at the front show no signs of flagging. (3/5)
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow
Rainbow are naturally the big draw at Stone Free Festival this year, headlining the main arena to a mammoth crowd who are eager to see what delights the infamous and outspoken virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore will lay on tonight. Anyone in attendance at the Rainbow shows across Europe and the UK last year will remember that the setlist contained more Deep Purple tracks than actual Rainbow classics; to the surprise of some who particularly lamented the lack of material from Rising, and this year Blackmore has titled the night ‘Rainbow in Rock’ suggesting we can expect more of the same. But what is at the forefront of most people’s minds is simply seeing Blackmore playing this pioneering music live; signature Stratocaster in hand, loud and in the flesh, no matter what the setlist ends up containing.
The opening strains of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ pump through the PA and a Union Flag fills the screen backdrop, signalling either the beginning of a UKIP rally or, as is more likely, an indication that Blackmore sees the country as somewhat important in the world of rock music. The anthem changes with a dimming of the lights and the disembodied voice of Judy Garland informs both her canine companion and the crowd gathered tonight that we no longer in Kansas. A roar erupts and Blackmore enters the stage as the band begins performing a dreamy rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’. Then it’s straight into Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow with earworm ‘Spotlight Kid’, a track that bounces along and neatly showcases the talents of each member in Rainbow’s rented troupe. Right away, vocalist Ronnie Romero’s voice soars (owing a clear debt to the legendary Ronnie James Dio in its growlier moments) and Swedish keyboardist-extraordinaire Jens Johansson flies off the handle, trading ripping solos with Blackmore. Another track from 1981’s Difficult to Cure follows in the form of ‘I Surrender’ – a fan-favourite with its sing-along chorus reminding that Rainbow were no doubt the ultimate stadium band at their peak, and a glimmer of that spark can be seen here when the band find their groove and the whole thing flows.
Sadly however, these moments of alchemy where the band seems to transcend the sum of human bodies on the stage aren’t as frequent as you might want or indeed expect from such a group of musicians. Romero’s admission of there being no setlist for the show may go some way towards explaining this and also the fact that there is a lot of dead time between tracks, causing the evening to feel stunted at points. The band don’t seem as if they can relax into the music; their eyes flitting to each other to keep track of where the song is going, at times seemingly at the whim of their leader Blackmore. Perhaps strangely it’s the slower, stripped back numbers such as Purple classics ‘Mistreated’ and ‘Soldier of Fortune’ as well as the beautiful ‘Catch the Rainbow’ that really shine through and allow the band to weave their magic. Each of these tracks provide a point of stability and add dynamism to the setlist appearing after the more frenetic tracks.
With all this said, the times when Rainbow are on fire musically lift you like only rock music can at its most transformative and cathartic. These glimpses of the infinite come in the form of the stratospheric primal screams in ‘Child in Time’ where every fan pours out their hearts alongside the group itself, or in the equally as epic ‘Stargazer’ and ‘Burn’ which set the crowd alight and give us all what we came to see – Ritchie Blackmore absorbed in his craft, away from the traditional folk that he has been pursuing since the late nineties. There’ll never be another one like him and there’s no knowing how many more outings Rainbow will have, so for many the night was “mission successful” in that they got to see one of the guitar gods in his natural environment. (3/5)
Live photography: P.G. Brunelli
Festival intro: M Godding
Writers: Jack Welch (Blue Öyster Cult and Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow) and George Colwan (Sweet).