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Stone Free - O2 Arena

19th June 2016 (with Gina Franchetti and Jim Knipe)

Stone Free - O2 Arena

I’d not previously been to the O2 to see a band but I had 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. The first Stone Free Festival, a successor to the High Voltage Festival, was held over two days, only one of which was devoted to prog, but the chance to see 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 1975, seemed too important to miss.
The evening began with Wish You Were Here Symphonic, performed by the London Orion Orchestra. Not knowing how this might work out, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the performance. 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 orchestration and sensibly eschewed vocals, unlike the Orion Orchestra album version which features Alice Cooper. 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, providing an alternative way for fans to experience a well-known album in a very different way, 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 symphony orchestra music.
Introduced by 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 the last few times I’d seen him were solely devoted to Genesis material. After a technical glitch, he opened with Every Day, which is archetypal melodic Hackett. The acoustic Loving Sea from his latest release Wolflight came next, followed by the undiluted dark, brooding and complex prog of A Tower Struck Down and Shadow of the Hierophant. 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, with a performance enhanced by Sylvan’s theatrics and some dramatic smoke and lighting. 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 and I’d have preferred his set to last longer than that allotted for Marillion, who were on stage next. I’d only previously seen Marillion in snatches at 2010’s High Voltage Festival and I don’t remember any of the material aired that day, so Jerry Ewing describing the band as ‘prog rock royalty’ seemed pretty strange, though I was looking forward to witnessing a decent performance. Sadly, the show was spoiled by a poor, distorted sound where Steve Hogarth’s vocals came across as shouty. I’d really like to like the post-1987 material as it’s obvious their stance on social and political issues is on the same half of the spectrum as mine, but somehow the music just doesn’t work for me. Consequently, the only part I enjoyed was the inclusion of the Fish-era neo-prog medley Kayleigh/Lavender/Bitter Suite/Heart of Lothian.
I’ve seen Rick 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 this particular extended Arthurian epic. The additional music on Myths and Legends fitted nicely with the 1975 release but the lyrics appear to have been specifically written for Hayley Sanderson who I’ve previously suggested doesn’t have a voice suited to rock, although she’d be fine in a lead role in some West End theatre.
Sporting a green and silver cape and permanently ensconced behind his keyboard rig until coming down to take a bow at the conclusion of the performance, Wakeman played some awesome Moog parts, leaving narrative interventions to Ian Lavender, seated front left on the stage. I liked Wakeman’s orchestration, the choir and additional keyboards provided by Oliver Wakeman but the performance ended after The Last Battle without an encore, leaving the crowd a bit bemused, clapping politely but not enthusiastically for a couple of minutes before the house lights went up, creating an odd end to the evening.

I know Hackett always gives a great performance and the symphonic Wish You Were Here is worth catching so overall the gig was enjoyable, but my doubts about Marillion mean I’m going to have to work on Brave, Marbles and Sounds That Can’t Be Made, and although Rick Wakeman was one of my earliest musical heroes, I’ve got a creeping ambivalence towards his solo epics, epitomised by the addition of vocals to Merlin the Magician which spoiled the track for me.

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