Quite a weekend just passed at the O2 Arena, London. The Stone Free festival featured a series of bands over two days, June 18th and 19th, 2016 headlined by American rock legend Alice Cooper on day one then on day two Britain’s treasure, Rick Wakeman. It was both a complementary and divergent pairing, Alice heading a list of bands Saturday who are principally heavy rock ‘n’ rollers, such as The Darkness and Apocalyptica, and Wakeman with various progressive rock bands on Sunday including among others Steve Hackett and Marillion. I’ve seen this type of pairing before in Britain, last year’s Ramblin’ Man festival paired The Scorpions opposite Camel, and it’s entertaining just to walk around and people-watch. It’s easy to guess who came to see which bands as the rockers tend to favor adornment of leather, skulls, and crosses, and the proggers, well, they tend to arrive in carefully selected t-shirts commemorating Yes, Genesis, ELP, and so on. I started the weekend by picking up a Wakeman t-shirt so as to immediately declare my allegiance.
Having said that, I was also very excited to see Alice Cooper on “Classic Rock” day, as it was to be my first time seeing him after all the years I’ve spent in concert halls. For anyone not familiar with the history, Alice Cooper shows have featured dancing skeletons, attacking spiders, an 8-foot-tall Cyclops, broken baby dolls, and fully functioning guillotines all fronted by Alice’s vaudevillian protagonist backed by a rock ‘n roll band that would influence rock and metal upstarts for decades. In 1974, after racking up seven albums and countless concert performances, the original ban split. Singer Vincent Furnier legally adopted the name Alice Cooper, and embarked on a long and fruitful solo career. His first album and tour spawned the movie Welcome To My Nightmare that screened in 1975 at my local movie palace. I took to this film immediately, reveling in the clever stagecraft that included dancers appearing to step in and out of a movie.
Now more than 40 years on, and many solo album releases later, Alice still rocks — the concert was fantastic. As you might guess, these shows are quite well rehearsed now, a bit less anarchy on stage, replaced by more carefully crafted choreography, better lighting and effects. Yet the feeling of spontaneity and naughtiness remains, still aided with stage antics, props and costumes, continuing Alice’s long string of compelling rock ‘n’ roll Grand-Guignol, attended by the faithful and curious alike. The set list was packed with classics, beginning with “The Black Widow,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” He included several hit singles ending with “School’s Out” and the encore “Elected.” Late in the set list, Alice covered four songs by departed rockers, revealing a tombstone flag for each as he honored Keith Moon (“Pinball Wizard”), Jimi Hendrix (“Fire”), David Bowie (“Suffragette City”) and Lemmy (“Ace of Spades”). Alice’s voice sounded great — he’s kept the growl, but can still deliver a ballad like “Only Women Bleed.” Of all the fine musicians on stage, Nita Strauss stood out for her demonstrative searing leads on guitar. But this show has been and remains about the performance, about making a rock concert interesting by investing the proceedings with theatrics, in this case celebrating all things macabre. And, as is tradition, Alice died once more on the guillotine, guilty as always.
p.s. oh yeah, and time to pick up some leather, skulls and crosses to balance my allegiences!