Over the weekend of 30 June/1 July, the leafy environs of Mote Park in Maidstone opened its doors once more to the fourth annual Ramblin’ Man Fair.
To say that preparations for this years’ event were a little troublesome wouldn’t do justice to the term. Firstly, the date was changed to precede the school holidays (previous events have been held at the end of July). This was allegedly to accommodate the requirements of a significant Saturday headline act, though it did mean a number of regular Ramblers with children were not able to attend. Then, the naming of the significant Saturday headline act was delayed – leading many to come to the not unreasonable conclusion that the significant Saturday headline act had pulled out. Then, the significant Saturday headline act was announced as 70s Glam Rock band Mott The Hoople – leading many to come to the not unreasonable conclusion that the significant Saturday headline act had pulled out. Sunday headline, The Cult, also met with a few upturned noses and a little dissention started surfacing on RMF social media channels. There was even talk about whether the festival would make it to 2019 at all.
Truth is, that Ramblin’ Man Fair has always been a little different. Less corporate than enormofestivals such as Download and Glasto and small enough that there’s a good chance of walking past an off-duty member of the line up just watching in the crowd, it simply cannot attract some of the names that the dissenting folk on social media might have liked. What you do get is a genuinely eclectic mix, which invariably serves up at least one performance that sticks around in the memory. At the inaugural RMF I discovered Buck & Evans and I’m so glad I did. I’m confident that this time next year, people will still be talking about Skinny Molly playing Freebird in its entirety (it helps if you’ve got an ex-member of Skynyrd in the band) or about Myles Kennedy’s Saturday afternoon acoustic set on the Outlaw Country Stage.
Of course, this year we were blessed with idyllic weather and this certainly helped. With temps in the mid-twenties and a cooling easterly breeze, you could not have asked for more on Saturday. The Country stage had open sides and back to improve the airflow (and make photography exceptionally hard) and the tent that bore the moniker ‘Rising’ (emerging talent) stage on Saturday and ‘Prog In The Park’ (what it says on the tin) stage on Sunday was mercifully bigger than at any of the previous events and with open sides as well, it never felt oppressive. This year there were only three stages but the great improvement made in the tent more than made up for this.
As is often the case at Ramblin’ Man, the ‘support’ stages served up some of the best memories. From under the canvas, Brighton three-piece The Rocket Dolls practically blew my head off on Saturday afternoon, delivering a really fine performance of controlled, aggressive rock.
On the Outlaw stage, Polish band Me And That Man played some of the strangest country music I’ve ever heard – but then the Outlaw Country stage at RMF has always been a misnomer. “It’s a bright day, let’s make some dark sounds” opined front man Adam Darski from under the brim of a very black sheriffs hat. Given he normally fronts death metal band Behemoth, it was perhaps no surprise that they didn’t roll out any Dolly Parton covers.
Later in the day, in what was genuinely a country music performance of some note, Outlaw stage headliner Steve Earle and the Dukes played their seminal 1988 album Copperhead Road in its entirety. Earle quite rightly garnered a big crowd under the wilting sun and with the temperature dropping into sensible territory and the bar a few steps away, this was an exceptionally pleasant place to spend your time on Saturday evening.
The main Planet Rock Stage has in previous years been home to a succession of (in my eyes) fairly formulaic heavy rock bands, albeit often with some star names thrown in. This year was far more varied I’m pleased to say. I had a chance to see alternative metallists Therapy? deliver a cracking opening to their set, the craic from Ballyclaire front man Andy Cairns almost as entertaining as the music.
The southern rock fans still basking in the afterglow of Skinny Molly’s Freebird moment had just enough time to park themselves at the front of the main stage crowd for The Cadillac Three. TC3 are no strangers to this stage having charmed RMF in 2016 and the fan base was out in force once again.
The sweet sound of pedal steel guitar made way an hour or so later for the F-Bomb sandwich, cock-rock parody that is Steel Panther. This was another controversial choice among some and in musical terms alone it was quite hard to see how this got shoehorned in between TC3 and Mott The Hoople, but there was no denying that Michael Starr and his toupee touting comrades put on a hell of a show.
With song titles like She’s Tight, Gloryhole and Seventeen Girls In A Row, this might not have been a place to bring the kids, but there were two other stages pumping out music at the time and the audience (a number of whom had brought inflatable penises for the occasion) certainly didn’t seem to mind. I’ve no doubt that for many, Steel Panther were the headline act that beat the headline act.
The official headline act came out at 9.15 and I did feel a little sorry for Ian Hunter and his crew. At seventy-nine, it’s fairly remarkable that he was in attendance at all, let alone having to follow in the wake of the performance that went before and clearly whilst the voice was still there, there was no prospect of a show with the energy of Steel Panther.
Mott have had more line-up changes and touring members than Spinal Tap and tonight saw a partial reformation of the 1973 line-up featuring Aerial Bender on guitar and Morgan Fisher on keys. Bender gave it 10/10. Wearing a fetching beret and strutting like a slo-mo Jagger, he was obviously having a whale of a time. It was just as well he wasn’t aware that his guitar had been mixed out of existence.
Not surprisingly, Mott closed with All The Young Dudes, but by then much of the audience had voted with their feet. The official RMF 2018 highlight reel, released earlier this week, didn’t feature Mott The Hoople at all. Draw your own conclusions.
Sunday was as hot as Saturday, but without the breeze – so it was hotter. The programme on the Sunday was pretty hot too with some notable acts although weirdly much of them were scheduled against each other whilst long swathes of the afternoon remained music free. To add to the confusion, a generator failed on the freshly renamed Blues Stage, which put set times back by around forty-five minutes. Sadly, all this achieved was the same number of clashes, just with different people.
The net result of this was that some notable artists on the Blues Stage came out to some undeservedly small crowds. Kris Barras, a big favourite from the Rising Stage last year was set against Tyler Bryant And The Shakedown on the main stage, which was a real shame for fans of blues-rock with emphasis on the rock. I caught Bryant (who was excellent, always is) first and Barras second and I’m pleased to say by the time I arrived at the Blues Stage, Kris had a decent crowd.
I was back there at the start of Laurence Jones’s set though and the crowd was sparse. I’ve been watching and photographing Laurence since he’s been playing supports in tiny pubs and I really enjoy his music and playing. With guitarists such as Jones, Ben Poole, Kris Barras and Chris Buck, the future of this music is in safe hands for a generation to come. Sadly, I had to leave Laurence after a couple of songs to take photos elsewhere and I really hope his audience swelled.
It wasn’t only the Blues Stage that was experiencing teething problems on Sunday. A complicated setup involving use of their own mixer for the Von Hertzen Brothers in the Prog tent had the technicians in there scratching their heads and this seriously delayed the bands that followed. Whatever the reason for the audio alchemy, it certainly worked for the Von Hertzen’s because they sounded epic. The tent was rammed too. Like TC3, they were another band that made a lot of friends here when they played RMF in 2016.
Things were running smoothly on the main stage at least and another varied line up was on tap. Following Tyler Bryant were progressive metal supergroup Sons Of Apollo featuring The Winery Dogs colleagues Mike Portnoy (drums) and Billy Sheehan (bass). Given Portnoy and Sheehan are respectively recognised as two of the finest musicians in rock music, this was indeed another impressive coup for Ramblin’ Man. It turned out guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thai was no slouch either. With their four necks between them, the axemen out front looked as complicated as their music sounded.
Blackberry Smoke were a huge draw on the main stage; of course, their blend of southern country/blues rock goes down a storm in these parts. The band played cuts from their 2018 release Find A Light and brought their own twist to The Beatles’ Come Together. Front man Charlie Starr looked über relaxed in his Aviators and the crowd hung on his every word.
Whilst Blackberry Smoke were doing their thing to a load of people on the main stage, Jim Jones And The Righteous Mind were doing theirs on the blues stage to considerably fewer. The Righteous Mind were another band that fell foul to the peculiar scheduling and generator issues that meant nobody really knew who was doing what on the second stage. Again, I was only there at the start and I really hope some more people jumped on board. The band were all dressed in black (a feat in itself on a day like this) and the sound was equally dark and malevolent. Anybody looking forward to The Cult with a whiff of nostalgia in the nostrils should have been at this.
Back on the Prog stage and the teething troubles were being compounded by having to find holes for all the plugs that just been removed from the back of the Von Hertzen’s desk. The techs were looking increasingly frazzled as the start time for Mostly Autumn came… and went. Over thirty minutes after the scheduled start the band appeared and almost as soon as they did, I left as I had to be somewhere else. Shame as Mostly Autumn seem to be the most famous band nobody has really heard (including me) and I was looking forward to breaking my duck. The tent was once again stuffed and all those people weren’t there by accident.
But, the festival rolls on. Big Boy Bloater entertained the crowds and his own band on the Blues Stage by delivering an improvised shuffle following an unfortunate string break. I’m always impressed watching guitarists who really know what they’re doing changing strings on the fly.
I imagine in the plusher environs of the Main Stage, Lzzy Hale has somebody change her strings for her when they break. Hale, the dynamo force that fronts Halestorm can certainly sing – her vocal chords seemingly in danger of going the same way as Big Boy’s A given the uncompromising style in which she banged out the words. In a song like I Am The Fire, she alternated between controlled emotion and wild aggression in much the same way that Dave Grohl does. That’s not the sort of comparison that gets handed out too often. Halestorm are back in the Autumn and the tour is already sold out.
Only the headliners left now. Fish on the Prog stage was of course another big draw but the ex-Marillion front man was also being compromised by a confused changeover. By now, the frazzled roadies were individually starting to look about as composed as a FIFA referee surrounded by some agitated Columbian footballers. When Fish finally appeared, he looked less than unhappy – has face not really masking the obvious irritation that was boiling underneath. His mood would have taken a further nose-dive following a hastily produced bit of paper put on the stage from the photo pit advising that although they had started around twenty-five minutes late, they were to maintain a strict curfew of 8.45 so as not to intrude on The Cult.
Things were more relaxed on the Blues Stage. Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule were jamming as only Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule can. Haynes had been joined by Charlie Starr and sweet guitar harmony parts, Allman style were ringing around the park. Much like the previous evening, this was a really lovely place to be and I’d have happily stayed had I not got an appointment in a photo pit with The Cult. I heard later that Bernie Marsden had also joined Haynes to play Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City. I’d have loved to have heard that.
Still, I cannot deny that there was palpable excitement out front waiting for Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy to come on stage. This was another ‘soundtrack to my youth’ moment, much like Extreme had been at this time the year before. Once they shook off the Gothic overtones on Love; with the release of Electric The Cult basically became the UK’s AC/DC, only without the obvious impediment of having a pensioner on stage dressed as a schoolboy. It was Electric’s opening track Wild Flower that came first and any doubts that The Cult were here to cash a cheque with the minimum of effort were quickly dispelled. Rain followed and two instantly recognisable tunes out of two had got the crowd fired up.
Astbury’s vocals rang true and clear and Duffy and that ludicrous jumbo Gretsch sounded as good as they ever did. The band are rounded out now by names we’ve probably not heard of and they have an extensive discography we’ve also probably not heard of and absolutely none of that mattered. Songs such as Lil’ Devil, Nirvana and (set closer) Love Removal Machine had the crowd going absolutely nuts with an abandon that I’m not sure I’ve seen before at Ramblin’ Man. To nobody’s surprise, the encore was She Sells Sanctuary and Astbury needn’t have worried about the volume of the backing vocals.
RMF 2018 might have had a few trials in the weeks leading up to it, but there were so many highlights this year that it’s hard to pick one out. Twelve minutes of Freebird and the sub-zero coolness of Myles Kennedy are right up there, as were the Von Hertzen Brothers and Lzzy Hale – but if it had to be one I’d pick The Cult, who really were an excellent way to close. The argument about Mott will no doubt rage and be as intense as it is pointless – it was what it was. What was not in doubt as several thousand Ramblin’ men and women made their way out of Mote Park on Sunday night is that RMF occupies a special place and certainly deserves to hang around into 2019 and beyond.
Ramblin’ Man Fair 2018 review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk