By: Erik ‘De’Viking’ De’Scathebury
Pictures: Adrian Hextall \ MindHex Media & Sophie Lily Hextall Photography
Saturday at the Fair
It’s an early summer morning as I wend my way down the winding backroads of the beautiful Kent countryside on my way to the Ramblin’ Man Fair. It is the fourth year this growing festival has taken place at the lush Mote Park in Maidstone Kent, and the weather is glorious. Arriving an hour before the gates open to pick up my guest pass from the press office, Ian Hunter’s sound check can be heard drifting over the site barriers. As I approach the entrance, a column of the rock faithful are stood before the gates of festival heaven, and the vibe in the queue makes it clear it’ll be a great day. Ramblin’ Man is by far one of the most laid-back and friendliest festivals you can hope to attend in the UK, and dare I say, Europe in general. Don’t let its small size fool you, because it’s perfect for what it is, and you will never feel crowded despite the thousands of people who attend. Over the two days, the festival has a stage to cater to everyone’s musical tastes and maybe some you didn’t even know you had. You will never be short of something to listen to.
Having attended the festival since its inception in 2015, I pretty much knew what to expect, except where the guest pass let me go. There was initially a bit of confusion among the various staff, but a couple hours in, I discovered that it gave me access to the VIP enclosure. If you are lucky enough to be in this exclusive area, you’ll get additional acoustic performances throughout the day, a private bar, and plenty of space to enjoy the weekend away from the masses. The thing about the VIP area is that you never know who you are going to bump into. This can make for a surreal experience, as I discovered after hanging out with notable musicians and guests over the course of the weekend. The guys from Gun were particularly good company on the Saturday, and as the conversation turned to speculation for next year’s festival, Def Leppard seemed to be the favourite for one of the headliners. They would certainly fill that position nicely.
For the past three years, the main stage was hosted by none other than the legend that is Paul Anthony from Planet Rock’s very successful morning radio show. If you’re not already a fan of this humble rock star in his own right, you should really have a listen. With great features which involve the listeners throughout the morning, and the Planet Rock Years, where he looks back over a year in music and pop culture, it truly is a fantastic programme to get you going in the morning. As ever Paul brought his A-game and whipped the crowd up to a frenzy every time he took the stage. Between his rocker looks and that unmistakable swagger, how could you not swept up in the moment? By the Sunday evening, it was clear his voice was pretty well gone, but like the trooper he is, he carried on. He was even on the airwaves the next day, bright and early. Now that is dedication
Like any multi-stage festival, it is physically impossible to see everyone, however I did my best to move about the festival on the Saturday as much as I could. Entering to the sound of Those Damn Crows on the Rising Stage, the Welsh lads were blasting out their crunchy rock sound across the field, quickly attracting a crowd. Recently signed to Earache records, the five-piece ploughed through a thirty minute set which included their current single “Don’t Give a Damn”, as well as other fan favourites. While I didn’t hang around the tent, I heard a lot of praise for them, as well as Gorilla Riot, and the Dust Coda from the various people I chatted to throughout the weekend. They are definitely ones to watch. Gun were second on the main stage, and frankly deserved a much higher billing. The Glaswegian boys worked through songs from their entire catalogue, including their high octane cover of Cameo’s “Word Up!”, their current single “Favourite Pleasures”, and closed with a rousing cover of the Beastie Boys “Fight for your Right”. The Gizzi brothers were certainly on fire, and the chemistry between the members of the bands was infectious. After pounding out hit after hit they really worked the crowd up, making them a hard act to follow. The Cadillac Three returned to the main stage again, having previous played the festival. Opening with “Tennessee”, they rolled through a number of crowd pleasers including “American Slang” and “Peace Love and Dixie”, with their soulful southern blues-rock stretching out over the early evening setting a mellow mood for the shock to the system that would follow them: Steel Panther. While I realise that Steel Panther is a marmite band, I was personally impressed with how they managed to talk more than actually play their songs. Also as Ramblin’ Man is very much a family friendly festival, there were a lot of young children who were hurriedly whisked away from the main stage when they came on. It was the first time I’ve seen them live, and hopefully the last.
When Myles Kennedy took to the Outlaw Country stage, he seemed sincerely unprepared for the reception he received. Performing a mix of songs from his new solo album Year of the Tiger, Alter Bridge, and covers, he clearly demonstrated just how talented a musician he truly is. Before closing his hour-long set with his current hit single “Year of the Tiger”, he proved you could cover Iron Maiden’s the “The Trooper”, in the style of Johnny Cash. It was a bit of a surprise at first, but then the crowd really got into it. It was clear that Myles was genuinely enjoying himself and it became one of the stand-out performances of the day, and more than worthy of the main stage. Following Myles was Steve Earle & The Dukes. The entire set was focused on Copperhead Road, Earle’s seminal album which has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Opening with the song of the same name, the band treated the large crowd to song after song off the legendary album. And last, but most certainly not least; the main even of the Saturday: Ian Hunter & Mott the Hoople. Featuring much of the mid-70s line-up, Mott played a classic set including “Roll Away the Stone”, and “All the Way from Memphis”, before bringing the festival to a close for the day with “All the Young Dudes”. Definitely a bucket-list moment for me having grown up listening to Mott on vinyl borrowed from my step-father’s record collection. For me the best acts of the Saturday were Gun, the Cadillac Three, and Myles Kennedy.
Sunday at the Fair
Arriving on site in time for the early VIP admission, the contrast between the two mornings was striking. It was clear that there would be a lot of late arrivals today. Those who mustered the intestinal fortitude to be there before noon were a rag-tag mix of ramblers sporting such badges of honour random sunburn, lack of sleep, and raging hangovers. It would still be a great day, but it might require intravenous drip-fed coffee to get properly motivated and in the mood. As I took it fairly easy the day before, I was up for anything. Once the gates opened, the first thing that struck me as how clean the site was again – not to say that it was particularly rubbish-strewn the night before. Ramblin’ Man is a festival that really keeps on top of the litter, but so do its attendees. Not sure if that is simply down to its size or the general attitude of its patrons, but it is certainly one of the cleanest festivals going. All the bins had been emptied, the toilets cleaned, and the site was ready again for another amazing day under the blazing summer sun.
Popping into the VIP enclosure, I ran into Nathan James of Inglorious and Chris Davis from Stone Broken. Both true gentlemen, Nathan and Chris are from two of the most down-to-earth bands that the UK rock scene has to offer. While Nathan was there with friends, family, and band-mates, looking forward to the epic performances of the day; Chris and the rest of Stone Broken were there doing PR work for their label – there are certainly worse places to have to work. After a conversation involving livestock and favourite chicken breeds, I left Nathan to it. He was really looking forward to seeing Kris Barras, Blackberry Smoke, and Halestorm – who he expected would be among the best acts of the day. No argument from me there Nathan. Once again, there were a variety of acoustic acts to fill the gaps between performances on the main stage. Of all the acoustic sets of the weekend, the ones that stood out most for me were Myke Gray’s band featuring Phil Conalane from Blackwater Conspiracy on vocals, Jack J Hutchinson, Kris Barras, and Tyler Bryant – who hit the VIP tent like he was out on the main stage all over again.
Sunday was the day of serious conflicts. In short, the main stage was so chock full of amazing talent that I wasn’t able to pry myself away from it. Unfortunately that meant that I missed out on seeing The Von Hertzen Brothers, Gov’t Mule, and Fish. Having played the Blues tent last year, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown graduated to the Main Stage this year, and instantly made it their own. Ripping through a number of tracks from their latest album, they took the stage with their blistering blues-rock set, leaving the crowd wanting more. I thought I was going to miss Kris Barras after a technical issue on the Blues stage pushed his set back to a point where he was up against Tyler Bryant, but thankfully I was able to catch a brilliant acoustic set in the VIP tent, which really showed off his talent. Super group Sons of Apollo were up next, featuring Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, as well as Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Billy Sheehan, and Jeff Scott Soto. A technically masterful set, which opened with “God of the Sun”, and finished with “Coming Home”, they proved that they earned their super group moniker.
Blackberry Smoke is a band I’ve seen many times before in the U.K. and they never disappoint. Their set was no different. Playing a number of tracks that spanned their successful career, many of the songs were taken from their seminal album The Whippoorwill, with “Six Ways to Sunday” really getting the crowd going. They were the perfect counterpoint to the previous day’s performance by the Cadillac Three, and set a palpable atmosphere before the evening’s special guests: Halestorm. Building on the strength of their previous album, Into the Wild Lilfe, Halestorm is back on the road promoting their upcoming album Viscious. As anyone familiar with Halestorm can attest, when they get on stage, they tear the place up. They are hard and heavy in the tradition of bands like Motörhead and AC/DC, and they dominated the evening from the first chord. From Lzzy Hale’s intense vocals, the guitar crunch of Joe Hottinger, the sonorous bass of Josh Smith, and the thundering of the drums courtesy of her brother Arejay; Halestorm’s intense set was full of classics as well as two new tracks “Uncomfortable” and “Black Vultures”. Without a doubt Halestorm produced one of the strongest performances of the day, and perhaps the weekend.
So what can I say about Sunday? Halestorm and Blackberry Smoke could have easily headlined themselves, and they played like they knew it. Closing the Ramblin’ Man Fair for 2018 were the Cult, who ironically turned out to be the surprise of the day for many. Now it’s fair to say there was a bit of controversy amongst the festival regulars about the announcement of the Cult headlining, but they quickly put those doubts to rest playing a career spanning set of classics. A noticeably energised Astbury dedicated the final song of the night, “She Sells Sanctuary”, to Lemmy Kilmister, and vowed to be back for more U.K. showed next year. It’s hard to say who I would claim were the best acts of the day, as there were just too many incredible bands to choose from.
And now, while still suffering from the post festival blues, I can’t help but think about next year. It has been announced that the Ramblin’ Man Fair will take place between the 19th and 21st of July in 2019, meaning a three day festival. After the highs of 2018 and previous years, they have a lot to live up to, but somehow I think they shall rise to the challenge. My personal hopes for headliners include Def Leppard, Slash & Myles Kennedy (maybe Alter Bridge), or even Lynryd Skynyrd. The latter may be unlikely, but they would certainly fit the bill for what this growing festival represents. Overall the Ramblin’ Man Fair makes for a great weekend, and although it can suffer from the same problems any festival can have, they are often limited and swiftly dealt with. The only thing the organisers, The Spirit of Rock, can’t do anything about is the weather. However, three of the past four years of its history, have had excellent weather. Let’s hope that continues, just like the success of the festival itself!
Written by: Erik ‘De’Viking’ De’Scathebury
My Global Mind – Reviewer / Music Journalist
Erik De’Scathebury is a music journalist based in the South of England. His musical interests include rock and metal in all its forms, and he is constantly on the lookout for new bands and genres to discover and later preach about to the masses.
Socials: Twitter: @Erik_DeViking
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