Ramblin’ Man Fair, the festival run by Spirit Of Rock that celebrates the best in classic rock, prog, blues and country is now in its third year. Whilst Download has strayed into pop punk territory and Bloodstock books bands with comical names (Infected Dead, anyone?) the Ramblin’ Man focus is on an altogether more relaxed and ‘grown up’ weekend. It’s the festival where you’re more likely to find a mosh pit in the queue for an ice cream than you are down the front. And this means that it’s a really inclusive, friendly and welcoming place to be.
This year, RMF ran to a third day, with the main stage active from 4.25pm on Friday – and this resulted in something I found a little hard to get my head around. Either it’s a three-day festival or it isn’t – and given (let’s count: Friday to Sunday) it clearly is a three-day festival, it’s a little silly to pretend it’s not by making it impossible to buy an inclusive ticket for all three days. Selling separate tickets (including car parking tickets) for Friday that were proportionately far more expensive for what you got (only four bands on one stage) seemed a little cynical to me. I can’t comment on how many people took the bait, as I didn’t. My primary interest was in the weekend headliners so I was personally content to avoid the thrill of the M25 on a Friday afternoon and pitched up Saturday lunchtime – just in time to see all round clever person James Toseland fronting his eponymously named band on the main stage.
The main stage at Ramblin’ Man Fair is a slightly odd place. It’s home to ‘classic’ acts and sadly that often means artists who are the wrong side of the apogee. If you’ve still got it (Black Star Riders) that’s irrelevant. Sadly, if you haven’t, it’s very relevant and it’s a wide-open space upon which to expose yourselves. Dokken and UFO, two bands high up the order on Saturday and Sunday respectively felt very, very exposed.
The other stages however often serve up unexpected and previously unknown joys – even if the naming conventions applied to them are a little weird. The second ‘Prog’ Stage of 2015 and 2016 was this year handed a split personality. On Sunday, it retained the usual moniker whilst on Saturday it bore the name ‘Grooverider’. Google will tell you that ‘Grooverider’ is a fifty-year-old drum and bass DJ from Streatham (real name Raymond Bingham – doesn’t sound very groovy) and whilst nobody I asked could confirm what on earth a grooverider actually was, I’m confident that this wasn’t the intended connotation. Whilst it might have had a silly name, the Grooverider Stage delivered some great stuff. Dirty Thrills opened proceedings on Saturday and whilst I didn’t catch them, I can confidently say they were brilliant because they always are. I did see the Kyle Gass Band (the half of Tenacious D that isn’t Jack Black), Icelandic power trio The Vintage Caravan, and stage headliner Rival Sons; all of whom were excellent.
The stars of the Grooverider Stage for me however were Germany’s The Picturebooks – a guitar and drums duo so explosive they made Royal Blood sound like Wet Wet Wet. Drummer Philipp Mirtschink whacked the skins alternately with his hands and then the world’s largest pair of Swan Vestas before finally picking up a pair of conventional sticks. There was also a ships bell on his kit though I wasn’t able to stay long enough to see what he used to hit that with – his head probably. If you want to see rock music delivered at its most raw, you need to see this band.
Another stage with a personality disorder at Ramblin’ Man Fair is the tent that’s always too small and that’s always referred to on Saturday as the Outlaw Country Stage before hosting artists that manifestly are not country acts. Prime example this year was headliner Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who is no more a country guitarist than I am an astronaut. He is brilliant though and a deserving headline on any stage.
Saturday was plagued by incessant rain. As the daylight gave way to darkness, I’m pleased to say the heavens finally closed shop and this made the Main Stage headline, Extreme all the more enjoyable. It’s fair to say that the band from Malden, Massachusetts were a controversial choice to close day one of the weekend – with many proclaiming them ‘not big enough’ (a little hard to justify when Pornograffitti was certified double platinum), or otherwise with people just not liking their brand of funky metal. Weather it was the rain or the latter reasons, it was extremely disappointing that the crowd voted with their feet. I imagine it looked OK from the stage but the arena was far from full when Extreme hit and as soon as they finished More Than Words, another exodus began. In Gary Cherone they have a vocalist who can still knock it out of the park and in Nuno Bettencourt they have a genuine world class guitarist. People should have hung around for those two reasons alone. They closed with We Are The Champions. It takes balls to cover Queen. Extreme did it with style and were undoubtedly one of my highlights of the weekend.
It rained hard again overnight but Sunday broke clear and remained that way. This years’ Ramblin’ Man Fair offered hypothermia and sun stroke in equal measure. Only in England. Still, the improved weather raised spirits and certainly helped raise numbers. The Sunday crowd was a lot bigger.
Early Main Stage highlights on Sunday were Stone Broken, who I didn’t see but who I’m reliably informed made the very most of their time on the RMF big stage. Blues Pills and Monster Truck, both of whom I did see, did the same and were a lot of fun. Monster Truck were a Main Stage upgrade from their position last year on the (then) new Rising Stage, which was a revelation in 2016 and hosted a load more great bands this year too.
The size of the site and inevitable clashes meant you had to pick and choose but Trucker Diablo, Bad Touch, Xander And The Peace Pirates, SKAM, The Fallen State, The Kris Barras Band and Blackwater Conspiracy all impressed me and cemented the Rising Stage as a place to be all weekend.
This left the now reclaimed Prog Stage to host some genuine Prog legends such as Focus. I heard Hocus Pocus delivered from afar and it was a joy to hear the audience yodelling their part.
In another naming convention head-scratcher, the Prog Stage also hosted Magnum, a perfectly fine band but not one finding itself on too many Prog Rock playlists. Closing the festival on this stage and with a more credible claim to the Prog crown were The Devin Townsend Project. Townsend was hilarious – a consummate front man. A great number of people left that stage with wide smiles and many converts were made.
Meanwhile, the tent that’s always too small and that’s always referred to on Sunday as the Blues Stage served up some actual blues artists in the form of Big Boy Bloater And The Limits, Aaron Keylock and Tyler Bryant And The Shakedown before the venerable Joanne Shaw Taylor closed proceedings under the canvas for 2017.
I felt a little sorry for Joanne. The early part of her set was blighted by sound problems – bassist Luigi Casanova (a man with dreads nearly as flamboyant as his own name) had no sound at all in the first three songs; and the latter part of her set saw her scheduled against ZZ Top. The Little Ol Band From Texas were another controversial choice for a Main Stage headline act, though once again I fail to understand why – given they are arguably the biggest currently active band to have ever taken foot upon it.
Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard (the one without the beard) might not throw themselves about on stage but they’ve undoubtedly got a style all of their own. The early part of their set focussed on the older more bluesy repertoire with songs such as Jesus Just Left Chicago and I’m Bad I’m Nationwide; the latter part paid homage to the album everybody’s got with songs such as Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. The encore of La Grange and Tush was superb and preceded a third encore of Presley’s Jailhouse Rock.
Whilst Saturday night’s numbers might have made Spirit Of Rock a little queasy, a packed arena on Sunday and thousands leaving with fixed smiles obviously cheered them up. Their actions spoke louder than words. Even before the masses had filed out, the big screens were announcing dates for 2018. The Super Early Bird tickets were on sale the following morning – and have already sold out. It’s not hard to see why.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Ramblin’ Man Fair at Mote Park: 28th to 30th July 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk