You might think that the last thing the oversaturated UK festival market needs right now is yet another competitor for rock fans’ patronage, but Ramblin’ Man Fair isn’t like other festivals. Situated in Maidstone’s Mote Park and spread across three stages over two days, there is none of the usual scramble for the best spot to pitch a tent. All the camping is technically off-site (though the nearest is virtually outside the festival gate) and spaces are pre-allocated, so nobody needs to worry about getting stuck next to the toilets. As for the music, it is a focussed celebration of classic rock, prog, blues and country, rather unlike the more diluted presence of these types of acts in more established, mainstream festivals.
Kicking off events on the main stage on Saturday were reformed Belfast rockers No Hot Ashes. Their melodic rock warmed the early risers but failed to draw many from their beds. Making the move to music for former world superbike champion James Toseland was a bold decision, but it is one that has clearly paid off to some degree. His titular band played an engaging set that served as a delightful precursor to AOR stalwarts FM. Blue Öyster Cult ably proved that they’ve still got it; they touchingly dedicated ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper‘ to the late Amy Winehouse, and leaved us craving more with a splendid rendition of ‘Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll‘. Saxon were up next, and the NWOBHM pioneers took the laid back approach; charismatic frontman Biff Byford ate his setlist after a few songs before taking audience requests for the remainder of their set. Judging from the t-shirts worn by Saturday’s festival-goers, Dream Theater were one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend. They certainly didn’t disappoint, celebrating their 30 years as a band with a career-spanning setlist to please fans of all eras. Scorpions were nearly half an hour late on stage, prompting some disappointed fans to head over to watch Camel on the Prog Stage instead, but when they finally did arrive they were definitely on form. Klaus Meine remains pitch-perfect after all these years, whilst James Kottak was hoisted into the air for a brief drum solo. Their set was composed primarily of hits from their 80’s heyday, but we were also treated to a medley of their best 70’s output and several selections from their excellent new album Return to Forever. ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane‘ signed everyone off for the night so we could prepare for more of the same on Sunday!
Over on the Prog Stage, Unto Us set the standard for others to follow with their short set. It may have been a one off for Touchstone chantress Kim Seviour, but she and the rest of the band seemed to be have the time of their lives, ending with a singalong run through Tears For Fears’ classic ‘Mad World‘. Messenger mesmerised their audience and proved they are one of the best new bands on the circuit, while Haken showcased their immense talent with their mind-melting yet melodic compositions. Anathema never disappoint, and Sunday was no exception as they drew one of the largest crowds of the day.
Sunday’s early risers were treated to an exquisite set from Swedish retro rockers Blues Pills, who helped to block the pouring rain from our minds. The bar was set high, but Icelandic post-metal crew Sólstafir were up to the challenge. Despite being something of an odd fit on the bill and experiencing some early technical issues, they captured the attention of many. It may not have been seven o’clock, but it sure was time for a party as The Quireboys continued the run of excellent performances seen on the day. “They didn’t tell me this was gonna be Ramblin’ Man on ice!” proclaimed frontman Spike as they battled through the weather and their fear of electrocution. The Temperance Movement slowed the pace a little with their more soulful approach to bluesey hard rock, before Rival Sons kicked things back into gear with ‘Electric Man‘. With shows like this, it is not hard to see why some are touting them as the next Led Zeppelin. Seasick Steve was the most genuine performer of the day; he clearly performs purely for the love of doing it, and the crowd replicated that love tenfold. It was fitting that Gregg Allman closed the first Ramblin’ Man Fair (assuming that this name is drawn from The Allman Brothers Band’s hit). However, the crowd was looking decidedly thin throughout the set of southern rock anthems and blues standards. Though technically a fine performance, it was something of an anticlimax in light of the preceding acts.
The appeal of Knifeworld arguably lies in their complex song structures and extended lineup, featuring instruments such as bassoon and glockenspiel alongside the traditional rock setup. Unfortunately, some of these instruments (and Kavus Torabi’s voice) were a touch out of tune throughout their time on stage. The Pineapple Thief made up for this with their brooding yet upbeat tunes, and Riverside continued to darken the mood (in a good way), by treating us to some songs from their upcoming Love, Fear and the Time Machine album alongside old favourites. French shoegazers Alcest were excellent as always, playing a decent mix of their recent material with elements from their Black Metal-influenced past. There was a large crowd (including modern Prog overlord Steven Wilson at the side of the stage) gathered to watch Ian Anderson‘s set, which was drawn entirely from his vast discography with the legendary Jethro Tull. His vocals may have shown the signs of age, but he had the energy of a sprightly young man, and certainly still knows how to entertain a crowd. It could be argued that Marillion could have been headlining the main stage were it not for the Prog tagline – they certainly drew the larger crowd on the night. The band put everything into their show and were clearly enjoying themselves up there. Frontman Steve Hogarth bantered with the fans in the breaks between songs and costume changes. There was no sign of 80’s mega-hit ‘Kayeigh‘, but they pulled off a particularly excellent rendition of ‘King‘. “We’ll see you next year!“ they proclaimed as they left the stage – if it will be anything at all like that performance, then let’s hope that’s true!
Ramblin’ Man is the only major UK rock festival (that I can think of) to have a stage dedicated solely to Blues artists. Metamorphosing from the ‘Outlaw Country’ stage, events were already in full swing by the time Aaron Keylock hit the stage. His incredible chops belie his youth; at just 17 he can hold his own against the greats of the genre. Former Bad Company guitarist Mick Ralphs lead his band through a short set of bluesey Hard Rock, managing to slip in a few numbers by his old band too. Headliner Bernie Marsden has had a long and interesting career in rock and has plenty to show for it. As well as original material, his distinctive touch was given to Albert King’s classic ‘Born Under A Bad Sign‘ and several of his best-known songs from his tenure with Whitesnake. A sublime take on Jimmy Rogers’ ‘Walking By Myself‘ was a fine way to end a fine weekend.