“We believe there’s a Ramblin’ Man – or Ramblin’ Woman – in all of us, who wants to wander and listen to great music, drink fine beer, eat great food and have the best of times”. So read the tagline for this inaugural Ramblin’ Man Fair festival of Classic Rock, Prog, Country and Blues hosted by The Rock Collective and TeamRock and held at Mote Park in Maidstone over the weekend of 25th & 26th July. To be honest, I needed a little convincing. Mote Park might reside within the Garden of England but downtown Maidstone is hardly Woodstock and that most anodyne of taglines might as well have read “The festival for people who like going to festivals”.
Still, the impressive list of confirmed acts indicated that the people who like this kind of festival were likely to be bouncing off the walls like kids in an overstocked sweet shop – and with the quantity of acts on offer there was enough musical glucose here to induce a blood-sugar incident in the most healthy of Ramblin’ people. So, with an open mind and the Ramblin’ Man app cemented in my phone, I made my way down to Mote Park on Saturday to check out proceedings.
Initial impressions were very favourable. Despite rainfall of biblical proportions the day before, the ground had held up beautifully and Mote Park looked green and pleasant, much as advertised. In fact, the site was pretty much the perfect size – large enough to have ‘big festival’ presence, whilst small enough to be easily navigable and retain a sense of intimacy. There were three stages. The smallest, and the only one with any protection from the elements, was to have a split personality. On Saturday, it took the name Outlaw Country. Standing within you didn’t feel like a fugitive of the law racing towards the county line, but it seemed a good size and the PA and lighting was excellent for the third performance space. On Sunday it transformed into the home of blues and blues-rock.
The mid-sized stage was reserved for the progressive rock bands and to be absolutely sure to avoid confusion was named the Prog Stage. From the very front, the most noticeable thing about the Prog stage was that it was unfeasibly high – neck strain for those wedged against the barrier. Still, I imagine the bands that played there looked great from the Isle of Sheppey.
The focal point of the whole site was the Classic Rock stage, which was huge and with twin screens was really very impressive. Beyond these three, there was a cinema showing various music films through the weekend (probably very good, though I never had time to venture inside) and the usual assortment of eateries and retail emporiums you come to expect at such an event. There was also a fairground, but given the demographic (men of a certain age, fewer women, fewer still children), the chair-o-planes didn’t receive a lot of love.
One issue with having so much music on offer is that if you want to see as many artists as possible, you don’t hang around with any of them for very long and I found myself darting between stages like a truffle hound sniffing out his next conquest. The Classic Rock stage on Saturday was a who’s who of dinorock mega-stardom: FM, Blue Öyster Cult, Saxon, Dream Theater, Scorpions. If you combined the total ages of the members of these bands, you’d probably have to express the answer in standard form. The festival picked up some heat for this on social media ahead of the event, but this struck me as ridiculous. If you don’t like this kind of thing, don’t go. In any case, there were plenty more contemporary acts on other stages or on the Classic Rock stage on Sunday if that was what you were after.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the Prog bands, who bring with them a maniacally faithful and supportive fan base. As I arrived at my first outing to the Prog stage, the maniacally faithful and supportive fan base of the band Messenger were occupying the barrier. Messenger, a London band who formed in 2012 were fronted by the charismatic Khaled Lowe, a man sporting dreadlocks that Adam Duritz could only dream about. I did my best to dispel it, but watching him I couldn’t get the thought of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons out of my head.
Back on the Classic Rock stage I enjoyed the Blue Öyster Cult, a group that knows a thing or two about the inappropriate use of umlauts. The band did some nice synchro guitar playing for the cameras and I was left wandering what the collective noun for guitarists might be. If there isn’t one, it ought to be invented. They dedicated Don’t Fear The Reaper to Amy Winehouse, a nice gesture if tragically, a chronologically challenged one.
Next up here were Saxon, Yorkshire’s greatest export after Geoffrey Boycott. Pioneers of the impossible to pronounce acronym NWOBHM (new wave of British Heavy Metal), Saxon were as popular as any band in the UK in the early 80s. In the intervening years, they’ve had some lean times, but roll forward to July 2015 and Biff Byford and the boys put in a performance that should defy anybody doubting whether they’ve still got it. Energy levels were high and mass community singing rang around the big stage for classics such as Wheels Of Steel and 747 (Strangers In The Night).
At the opposite end of the scale from the mighty Saxon were Buck and Evans, a band previously unknown to me who found a mid-afternoon slot in Outlaw country territory. Guitarist Chris Buck, singer and keyboard specialist Sally Ann Evans, bassist Dominic Hill and drummer Bob Richards collectively turned out to be one of my highlights of the whole weekend. Buck is a brilliantly understated guitarist; Evans delivered a face blasting yet soulful vocal and the rhythm of Hill and Richards drove the whole band along at a pace. The only mystery to me was how this powerhouse of soul and blues found themselves mid-way down the bill on the day the tent was otherwise dedicated to the pleasures of country music.
There was a real sense of anticipation for the Saturday headline on the Classic Rock stage. Unfortunately, that sense of anticipation lasted practically 30 minutes longer than it ought to have done because Scorpions were late. Very late. From the front, a small army of harassed looking stage technicians told the story that this was a technical issue rather than a problem extracting the band from the bar – but the rest of the arena didn’t know this and it wouldn’t have hurt for them to have been told. By the time the PA was finally cut and Klaus Meine and his crew burst out of the gloom, there were a few dissenting voices in the audience. But it soon became clear why there was a delay. The Scorpions set was light (emphasis on the light) years ahead of anything else we’d seen, with full width and height projection screens forming the backdrop and drum riser. Exploding loudspeakers gave way to a billowing Union Jack and the cheer this evoked indicated all was forgiven for their tardy entrance.
Camel headlined the Prog stage, and this was one of my premiere draws for being at Ramblin’ Man Fair. Andy Latimer’s health problems in recent years have been well documented and I thought it unlikely I’d ever get to see him perform live so this was a real bonus – and it lived up to expectations, with extended instrumental breaks in songs such as Never Let Go and Lady Fantasy still ringing in my ears as I approached the car at the end of the day and the suburban drone of central Maidstone took over.
On day two of Ramblin’ Man Fair I unfortunately started the day at a previous working commitment in Southampton, not ideal for a music festival taking place in Kent. A morning of clock watching ensued and I eventually got to Mote Park just in time to miss Aaron Keylock and The Quireboys – two acts I really wanted to see. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say and the silver lining to these clouds is that I missed the bucket loads of rain that had been relentlessly falling out of them since around 7am. I felt for the organisers because this was only the second day of really inclement weather there had been in the whole of July – the other being on Friday when they were making final preparations to set the whole thing up.
UK festival goers are nothing if not accepting of whatever the weather throws at them and a happy throng of soggy fans of The Temperance Movement were massed at the Classic Rock stage in advance of their mid-afternoon set. This is a band that has come an extraordinary distance in the last couple of years – from playing venues small enough to sing unamplified acapella to supporting The Rolling Stones on their European and North American stadium tours. With that kind of experience behind them, playing to around 10,000 cagoules ought to be a doddle, and it was – singer Phil Campbell thanking the crowd for their perseverance and receiving approval for his efforts.
The tent on Sunday was absolutely stuffed and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. “You’re only in here because it’s f*cking p*ssing down outside” remarked blues-rock guitarist Danny Bryant when he appeared. Whilst there may have been a smattering of the uninitiated sheltering from the rain, I’m sure the majority were in there because they appreciated Bryant as a man who knows how to use a wah-wah. Bryant was excellent and the Blues stage crowd was set for further guitar pyros later on with top players Joanne Shaw Taylor and ex-Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden still to play.
If the stature of an artist can be gauged by the size of the tarp they have hanging behind them, then we moved into the big league with Seasick Steve. Looking like he’d emerged from having just replaced the gearbox on your car, he started out with signature guitar, the ‘3 String Trance Wonder’ – an instrument that looked like it had spent a number of recurrent cycles in a dishwasher before carefully having three strings removed. He moved on to playing an old hubcap and concluded on a one-string washboard with a Mississippi license plate on the back. Steve was joined on stage by long-term collaborator, drummer Dan Magnusson, a man who had clearly been influenced by Animal from The Muppet Show. I was left wondering whether it’s easier or harder playing a guitar with virtually no strings. Probably a bit of both.
The closing act on the Classic Rock stage belonged to the man that helped inspire the naming of the event – Gregg Allman. Getting him to headline Ramblin’ Man Fair was obviously a coup. The good news was that it had finally stopped raining – in fact the evening has turned out to be quite pleasant. The bad news was that tragically, 72 hours previously Gregg Allman’s mother had passed away. Quite understandably, Allman and his band didn’t seem to be that thrilled to be there. On top of that, the staging was bit odd with Allman starting off almost completely obscured behind an organ that looked like it came out of a 1974 MFI showroom. The music was great, the quality of the playing was outstanding, but it didn’t have the pop that this stage expected for it’s final outing or that Scorpions delivered the previous night.
Marillion headlined the Sunday Prog stage. Marillion fans fall in two camps: the real ones who delight in everything the band has ever done, and the ones like me who lost interest when Fish left them in 1988. I was kind of pleased they made no concessions to my type of ‘fan’ and I didn’t hear a thing I recognised until around half way through when they played Sugar Mice, from 1987’s Clutching At Straws. In recognition of the “elephish” in the room, new (well, he’s been in the band for 26 years) frontman Steve Hogarth said in a mock churlish way: “I only like the old stuff” and I felt suitably chastised. Although I couldn’t get truly immersed in the performance, there was no denying the class of this band and the lightshow on the Prog stage was excellent. It was a fitting close to the weekend.
So that was Ramblin’ Man Fair 2015; forty-four artists in two days, of which I saw just over half. The ‘classic’ acts certainly put on a show and were tremendously entertaining. The more contemporary rock acts such as The Temperance Movement and Rival Sons looked great on the big stage, and there was plenty of country, blues and prog music that was new to me that I enjoyed as well. Buck and Evans and Messenger are certainly bands that I’m very glad to have found. So I enjoyed it, but was the event generally deemed a success and worthy of repeat? The release of Early Bird tickets for Ramblin’ Man Fair 2016 within 12 hours of the festival close would certainly indicate so.
Photography and Review by Simon Reed at Ramblin’ Man Fair, Mote Park, 25th & 26th July 2015.
Simon has his own great site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk
More pictures here:http://images.rockshot.co.uk/#!/index/G0000qbVoN1IKNlU