By Alexia Axxe
July 25th 2015 could well turn out to be an important date – that of the first ever Ramblin Man Fair – and how fabulous it was to witness such an amazing turnout, despite competing with Steelhouse in Wales on the same weekend.
Promoted by Abbie Marshall and Gary Turner of Rock Collective, this festival was born out of the dying embers of High Voltage, a festival greatly missed. So it was with excitement no, correction – hopping anticipation – that the artists were revealed with what Abbie describes in the collectors’ programme as “one hell of a line-up”.
The festival, positioned as somewhat of an ‘Ye Olde Rural Fayre’, is distinguished by its combination of Classic Rock, Progressive Music, Country and Blues on three stages with a seriously grown up and balanced mix of acts.
The fair hurled itself into action with 80s Irish blues band No Hot Ashes. Giving it all they had, the Celtic minstrels got the rapidly burgeoning crowd off to an excitable start. No Hot Ashes are definitely worth seeing for they put on a tight and energising set. They were followed in quick succession by Toseland, FM, Blue Oyster Cult and the mighty Saxon on the Classic Rock stage. Saxon just never let up touring and Biff was on great form as he joked and caroused the screaming fans, powered in the engine room by Nigel Glockler, back pounding the skins following a brain aneurism as if he had never been away.
Turning to the Prog Stage a convenient couple of minutes away, fans of progressive music of various flavours were treated to Messenger, Anathema and Camel who staged an ethereal, stunning comeback after Andy Latimer’s illness. Stroud neo-progsters Pendragon were a welcome appearance following their tour last year to promote “Men Who Climb Mountains”. Pendragon incidentally toured extensively with another great act headlining the Prog stage, Marillion. Enchanting their ever loyal following, Nick Barrett and the boys delivered five cracking numbers from various albums over the years ending including “Faces of Light” and “Indigo”.
Good reports emerged from the Outlaw Country stage with Waylon’s son Shooter Jennings, Hayseed Dixie and the charismatic Bob Wayne stomping down a sheriff-shooting storm in their cowboy boots.
The penultimate act on the main stage was a heartfelt, eight-song immersive experience culminating in “Behind the Veil” from Dream Theatre. The band has rapidly recovered from the blow of Mike Portnoy’s exit with replacement Mike Mangini on percussion and despite speculation across the internet on ‘who is best’, the band delivered a melodic and atmospheric prog-metal medley full of impact.
Day one ended in a Teutonic extravaganza; Rudi Schenker and Klaus Meine leading The Scorpions into band raging battle. Not the slighted hint of their years acting up after two score and ten on the road, the hot Hanoverians lit up the County of Kent belting out 18 top rock hits like a group of teenage mates. With 100 million records, three generations in their audience plus one of the most successful careers of any heavy metal band, this spectacle was surely a career milestone. The Scorpions will be laid to rest next year. Devastating news from the ultimate heavy rock icons and we can only hope that, like Judas Priest’s terminal High Voltage appearance, there will be a revival. This show bore no hint of a swansong as guitarists rampaged across the stage across each other. If this wasn’t enough, mad and daring, fresh from a somewhat unfortunate stint in a Dubai jail, James Kottack, climbed up on top of his drums. Not so outrageous for a 51 year old hell-raiser …. except for the small fact that the percussion was swinging high up suspended on a precarious platform from the roof of the stage. This man showed no fear as he swivelled around on the kit waving his sticks, rousing the audience into a frenzy, following an exhausting-to-watch drum solo. It featured an amazing light show with scintillating colours and digital film backdrop; heavy metal just could not get any better … or badder.
Whilst The Scorpions were the apogee of Saturday, the following day brought another stonking line-up leaving too little time for those nice little necessities, the bar, posh burger stand or even the loo lest any act be missed. Pretty much every artist was impressive in their own way which was just as well given that the weather was foul.
First off on the Prog stage was the beautiful and delightful Anna Phoebe with an elegant violin performance verging on classical with a strong prog twist. Anna has played with Ian Anderson who was further up the bill the same day. Anderson, currently on a gruelling set of EU gig dates to promote “Homo Erraticus”, fulfilled the desire for classic Jethro Tull yet surprisingly played nothing from his own well publicised new opus.
Other acts of note on the Prog stage were The Pineapple Thief (emotive psychedelic rock) Riverside (hailed as Poland’s answer to The Procupine Tree with a strong hint of Pink Floyd) and Alcest.
Alcest’s drummer, Winterhalter, and singer Niege represented the Francophone contingent with what can only be described as an entrancing other-worldly prog-soft metal aura with dreamscape tones. Equally other-worldly, Marillion, the last act of the day is of course, known for a cult-like fan base and amazing live shows. This was exactly what we got, fantastic atmospheric sound, a brilliant light show as dusk descended and absolutely superb musicianship from this veteran quintet with 15m album sales behind it.
On the Classic Rock stage stunning performances came from Solstafir, (1st prize for top Doom-laden band) Blues Pills, The Quireboys (rowdy, wild and fun as ever), ex-hobo Seasick Steve (who was disarming in his interaction with the crowd) and another veteran, Gregg Allman. It is Gregg Allman who provided the name and much of the inspiration for the fair with his song, ”Rambling Man”, so he was a fitting finale to a stunning weekend. Gregg played a long, strong set to a huge, raptured crowd. For some reason the eponymous song did not feature, but the 17 songs included Allman Brothers numbers, a bit of Muddy Waters, Gregg’s own band material and finished off with Elmore James’ “One Way Out”.
The third stage on Sunday dropped the cowboy theme and welcomed lovers of the blues. The Blues Stage played host to the rapidly up-and-coming Joanne Shaw Taylor, ex Mott The Hoople and Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs and was topped by virtuoso guitar player of Whitesnake fame, Bernie Marsden.
In conclusion, everything worked at Ramblin Man; importantly there was usually good sound on all stages – much better than at many festivals and it was needed to appreciate this combination of acts. The convenient location in Maidstone eliminated all the hell of trying to trudge through fields following long bus, train, taxi excursions which leave you shattered before you even get to the stage.
However there were some of the fundamental errors of all fairs. The organisers assumed all visitors are beer swilling teenagers. First given that the audience was older and more discerning in its tastes, the range of food and especially drink on offer was appalling. No decent wine, no champagne for special events and not even a proper range of spirits. Second, the overlap of acts between stages needed more thinking through. Better staggering and consideration of types of bands on each stage would have made it easier to catch more of the music and more of one genre of music. Finally the orientation of the viewing platforms and the stages could be improved for better visibility next year.
Ramblin Man has the essence of a medieval country fair – the sort Ian Anderson would take in his stride. It was totally laid back – with echoes of the olde worlde combined with a touch of Woodstock and cannabis-in-the-air hippy sensation.
Word is already out that the event covered its costs sufficiently and made a profit so there should be nothing to stop it from running next year.