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August 6, 2016

Ramblin Man 2016

RAMBLIN’ MAN FAIR – Mote Park, Maidstone, 23 July 2016 (Day 1)

This festival is now into its second year, having proved a hit in 2015 and was back with a bang this Summer, packing an eclectic bill of depth and quality across four stages and two days.

Mote Park lies on the outskirts of Maidstone, hardly the cradle of rock n roll excess (to which pretty views across the arena to the High Weald would attest), but the place made for a good venue. Apart from the myriad queues for tickets, passes and wristband exchange to get in, that is.

I just about navigated the bureaucracy in time to present myself at the main stage for opening act Inglorious. There is a good deal of hype surrounding the band just now, which is often a worrying sign. However, right from the moment the band hit the stage to the strains of The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, Inglorious stamped class across their performance

Nathan Jones is a naturally gregarious frontman, with an intimidating Plant-esque voice. He was absolutely up for this gig and the first ‘scream for me Ramblin’ Man!’ arrived within 30 seconds of their opener ‘Until I Die’. The exuberance showed itself on one or two occasions when Jones tried to do a little too much on some of the big choruses.  Minor quibble though.

The sound cut out a couple of times and to the band’s credit, their stride did not falter. One huge riff-driven cut followed another.  ‘Breakaway’ was a muscular workout and the bass rumble of ‘High Flying Gypsy’ featured some classic Kashmir overtones. Swedish guitarist Eriksson really shone on just about the best tune, ‘Holy Water’. There was also a great cover of Rainbow’s ‘I Surrender’. It’s hard to believe this lot are only one album old. This was a very convincing Festival opener.

Next up were the supergroup ‘collective’, Dead Daisies. The band’s revolving cast list for this tour threw up main men John Corabi on vocals, Marco Mendoza on bass and the incendiary Doug Aldrich on lead guitar. They hammered out a set of pure showbiz with Corabi doing his best Cap’n Jack Sparrow impersonation and Brian Tichy sat behind the most ridiculously ostentatious drum kit ever assembled.

The sound was full and well balanced. Opener ‘Mighty Moses’ set a good standard. As did another cover, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ later on. The band’s own material didn’t carry the same weight though. New one ‘Make Some Noise’ came across as a rather formulaic stadium anthem and even ‘Lock ‘n’ Load’ was a bit ploddy. A mixed bag, lacking a little sparkle from the big boys.

Time to check out another stage. I scurried over to the Outlaw Country tent to see southern rockers Hogjaw. I’d heard their ‘Rise To The Mountains’ album last year and had been impressed. Live, they brought an intensity and rawness to that material. If this was country, it was filtered through a blizzard of neat speed. Infectious riffs and massive drums filled the tent.

The pace slowed a little on the Lynyrd Skynyrd-infused ‘Where Have You Gone?’ with some bluesy vocals from frontman Jonboat Jones, who also wielded lead guitar and later whipped out the harmonica to good effect too.

Hogjaw are big quartet of lads. All check shirts and grizzled looks. They put down an early marker for most hirsute band on show. It’s a long shortlist though.

Best track of the set was ‘County Line’, an epic of soaring twin-lead guitar licks over a military drum beat. ‘Am I Wrong’ saw sticksman J “Killer” Kowalski take over vocal duties with a sharp, rasping delivery on a bass driven track. ‘Swamp’ was chock full of fat, dirty riffs with a sleazy monotone talkover section in the middle.

This mini classic of a slot ended with ‘This Whiskey’, featuring a regretful vocal and a funky mid-track switchover which took me by surprise. It was introduced by Jonboat as ‘a song about drinking whiskey…’! No frills with these boys. Just tell it like it is. Great stuff.

Back to the main stage for Terrorvision. I had honestly forgotten how refreshingly good Terrorvision are. Off my radar since they split in 2001, their reunion gigs and one new record in 2011 had passed me by.

The Bradford boys kicked off with the brilliant ‘Alice, What’s the Matter’ at a frenetic pace. Singer Tony Wright was dressed in distinctly un-rock ‘n’ roll dusty orange strides and polo shirt. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was ready for a round of golf until he started leaping around the stage like a 10 year old.

The edgy, pop-infused hits kept coming: ‘Pretend Best Friend’, ‘D’Ya Wanna Go Faster’ and ‘Celebrity Hit List’ all smashed out with energy and verve. The guitars had a pleasant growl above the sometimes quirky arrangements and clever, ironic lyrics.

The crowd was much thinner than for either Inglorious or Dead Daisies. Perhaps a reflection of the band’s low profile these last 15 years. Those who were elsewhere missed a treat with spontaneous outbreaks of dancing down the front. Welcome back. We’ve missed you.

I hightailed it back to the Outlaw Country stage to see a new band to me, Whiskey Myers. I was not disappointed. Neither was the crowd assembled there in anticipation. The tent was absolutely rammed for this Texan 6-piece.

The band grooved out a rich, full sound laced with gorgeous southern boogie. So comfortable and fluid, it was like shuffling into your favourite slippers. The melodies and vocal harmonies fell naturally into place over some dirty riffs and big rhythms. The songs were well crafted with great use of tension, drama and change of pace – the drummer unafraid to mix things up with a staccato beat every so often.

I didn’t identify many of the titles, such was my unfamiliarity with the band, but ‘Proud Man’ introduced as a track from the band’s forthcoming album ‘Mud’ really stood out. I’ll be scouring the shelves for it come September.

Ginger Wildheart was next up on the main stage. Ginger rarely fails to deliver and this was another whole-hearted performance.

In truth, it took a little time for the band to warm to the task. Openers ‘Take It All Why Don’tcha’ and ‘Anyway But Maybe’ sounded bass heavy and dense, failing to connect with the crowd in any great way. ‘Sonic Shake’ moved things up a gear though, and the track’s immediate rock/punk delivery soon had everyone’s attention. ‘Mother City’ lifted the spirits further with its boogie charms.

Ginger was directing operations front and centre with the troops gathered round, bass-meister Toshi on his left looking supremely cool.

‘It’s A Nasty Habit You’ve Got There’ briefly lost the gig some momentum just as it was heading skywards, but soon a couple of fan favourites brought the tempo back up again: ‘Mazel Tov Cocktail’ and ‘Top Of The World’ from Ginger’s Wildhearts repertoire sealed the deal. I could have done with a mighty ‘Suckerpunch’ to brace me for Europe’s set, but this was mostly damn fine entertainment, even without it.

And so to the poster boys of melodic rock: Europe announced their arrival on stage in typically melodramatic style with billowing dry ice and a portentous soundscape. In moments, Joey Tempest was flush in our faces, performing unspeakable gyrations with his white microphone stand.

This has been my longstanding problem with Europe. Too much style over substance. They look great and don’t leave any showbiz trick in the pack. But do they really cut the mustard live?

Well, I think I had a bit of an epiphany on the road to Maidstone. Europe nailed it.

Maybe I was high on the Festival experience and easy prey for the band’s pomp. Or in Brexit denial. Whatever it was, this was a thoroughly enjoyable set. An early highlight was ‘Rock The Night’ with a lovely bit of Hammond organ bubbling up under John Norum’s slicing guitar. This was a crowd sing-a-long moment (one of many) where devotees around me were punching the air, clearly in a mood to rock the night oh-oh-oh.

Even the frankly ridiculous ‘Last Look At Eden’ with its epic synth strings and dramatic poses sounded great. Joey was a having a top time, prowling the stage in his natty studded leatherette shirt, telling us how good it was to be “back in the cradle of rock”. He must have been sweaty in that heat.

‘Scream of Anger’, ‘Sign Of The Times’ and the excellent ‘Nothing To Ya’ were about the heaviest tracks on show and provided ample showcasing for John Norum’s pyrotechnics. ‘Cherokee’ was good fun with its riff and melody a deadringer for Rainbow’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’.

In no time at all it was time for that bloody song. The real reason why I’ve struggled with this band for so long. I was in a tiny minority though. The crowd absolutely exploded around the unforgettable keyboard riff to ‘The Final Countdown’. Parp! They – we – lapped it up. Even that classic couplet “We’re heading for Venus/And still we stand tall/’Cause maybe they’ve seen us/And welcome us all”…  Solid gold Festival fodder.

On the way over to try and see a smidgeon of Uriah Heep on the prog stage, I was accompanied by a gaggle of middle aged women chorusing ‘De-de-der-der, de-de-der-der-der’ at the top of their voices.

I failed to see much of the Heep owing to a late start. They began with the wonderful ‘Gypsy’ which was a bonus. Mick Box received a huge cheer and great to see Phil Lanzon high up on the centre-stage riser directing operations with a majesterial air and jazz hands behind his keyboard stack, his grey locks blowing freely in the evening breeze.

This was the worst clash of the day because I had to hop back to the main stage for Thin Lizzy. Whether or not it is right that this band call themselves Lizzy (I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about it) there could be no mistaking the quality of the gig. The classics simply billowed from the stage in waves of melodic hard rock nectar.

It’s all about the songs. And they stand up so well. The band captured the very essence of that twin guitar attack. If you closed your eyes, Ricky Warwick had enough of the inflections and tone to convince you it might just be the man himself. All the punters round me seemed happy enough.

The setlist was fairly diverse. No-nonsense stomper ‘Are You Ready’ and the keyboard-laden ‘Angel Of Death’ would probably be the least exposed. All the early classics were here, but nothing more challenging from their best later album, ‘Thunder And Lightning’. No surprise really as the surviving members Scott Gorham and Darren Wharton were allegedly less happy with that heavier material.

‘Jailbreak’ was a great choice for set opener and it was onwards and upwards from there. Tom Hamilton on bass from Aerosmith excelled on ‘Killer On The Loose’ and Damon Johnson from Alice Cooper’s band was really smart throughout. Scott Gorham worked the stage like the senior pro he is.

‘Emerald’ and ‘Rosalie’ were real crowd-pleasers and then old Midge Ure was wheeled out for ‘Cowboy Song’ and ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’. Warwick joked that Ure used to claim he was the worst guitarist to feature in Lizzy. “Well not now that I’ve joined!” he said. A mass sing-a-long for ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ brought the curtain down on a sure fire winner.

Such a ringing endorsement cannot so easily be made for Whitesnake’s schizophrenic headlining slot.  It’s hard to know exactly where Coverdale is at with this band because it didn’t feel like a gig that was entirely in tune with either the day or the times in general.

‘Bad Boys’ was a reasonable enough balls-out rocker to start off with. This was followed up with a great version of ‘Slide It In’, a firm nod to the band’s blues rock heritage.

Then things went a bit odd. ‘Love Ain’t No Stranger’ and ‘The Deeper The Love’ were fairly lacklustre and remote. And when Coverdale came to speak to the crowd, he was vaguely dismissive of the venue as a Festival destination and just a bit churlish all round.

He then led the band through one of the most soulless renditions of ‘Fool For Your Loving’ I’ve ever heard. Any last vestiges of emotion on the song were extinguished by a tuneless and clunky technocrat solo from Joel Hoekstra.

As if to emphasis the inconsistency, ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart of the City’ was impressive. Respectful, tender, powerful and played to suit Coverdale’s vocal range. Later, ‘Crying In The Rain’ was also top notch. Coverdale was clearly not hitting – or even attempting – the high notes and there was enough gravel in his voice to pave the access road behind the stage. The band’s backing vocals carried many of the big choruses.

This would have been less of a problem had any semblance of continuity not been trashed by the number of set piece solos. The first two arrived after ‘Ain’t No Love…’ when the stage cleared to leave Hoekstra to deliver a dull-but-fast tear up and down the fretboard in an overwrought piece of blatant and boring indulgence. He immediately made way for Reb Beach to deliver a painful acoustic solo before a few of his own electric histrionics.

The band had barely been back onstage a track or two before they disappeared again to enable a terrible bass and bass/keyboard set piece, followed shortly by a cacophonous, subtlety-and variation-free drum hash up from Tommy Aldridge. The crowd around me were vocalising their disbelief and displeasure in some fairly agricultural language.

That said, when the band managed to find themselves in one place for any length of time, they were capable of some fine moments. Those same sweary fans were as one in belting out every word to ‘Is This Love’, the wonderful ‘Here I Go Again’ and the encore ‘Still Of The Night’.

So the show closed on something of a high. Though not quite lofty enough to atone for those too-frequent moments of showboating and complacency.

The day as a whole, on the other hand, was an unmitigated success of musical diversity,

Gig review: RAMBLIN’ MAN FAIR – Mote Park, Maidstone, 24 July 2016 (Day 2)

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If the Day 2 line up was less immediately eye-catching and mouth-watering than Saturday, there was still so much to anticipate. I made straight for the Blues tent where a good crowd received Pat McManus enthusiastically. I’d been a fan since those glorious Mamas Boys days with his two brothers.

Since then McManus has pursued a varied career. Today was all about his celtic blues trio. Bounding on stage with a grin a mile wide, McManus ripped into a couple of tracks from his latest album ‘Blues Train To Irish Town’ each packed with driving guitar around a tight drum snap.

McManus never stopped smiling and introduced ‘The Boat’ with a twinkle in his eye as a tune dangerous to play because it was fast, “so fast you won’t hear the mistakes!” A few instrumentals peppered the short set with McManus turning to the fiddle for a couple of tracks. ‘So Far Away’ took the mood down a notch with some Peter Green-influenced touches. Lovely. Hard to believe such intimacy could be conjured up in an open-sided tent. The set closed with a beautiful tribute to Gary Moore called ‘Belfast Boy’: slow blues laced with Irish folk. The audience lapped it up. A stimulating start to the second day.

I had missed out the Rising Stars stage on Saturday and wanted to make up for it today.Stone Broken, a hard rock band from Walsall had attracted a good sized crowd. The four piece were very impressive, commanding the stage with confident presence and dealing out a chunky sound with huge drums. The half dozen tracks on show were built around heavy riffs – some very doomy – strong choruses and some great lead work with proper melodies and everything (ahem, Joel Hoekstra…). ‘This Life’ and ‘Be There’ stood out. Much to like here from an enthusiastic and talented band.

I almost gave the Kentucky Headhunters a miss. But was so glad I didn’t.  They had been added to the bill at the request of Black Stone Cherry, tonight’s headliners, with whom there is a family connection. A band dripping with southern boogie class, the quality of the slide/bottle neck playing on songs like ‘Walking With The Wolf’ was breathtaking. ‘My Daddy Was a Milkman’ was mellow, perfect Sunday afternoon Festival music. The delivery was unflashy with the band gathered closely together in the centre of the stage, crouched over their instruments.

Fred Young on drums sports the most extravagant mutton chops in rock. Bar none. His drum solo wasn’t bad either. Lots of variation and time changes and ending with him caressing the tom toms with his bare palms (ahem, Tommy Aldridge…). The band finished with a couple of Beatles covers. ‘Don’t Let me Down’ was poignant and emotional and it segued into ‘Hey Jude’ with most of Mote Park on backing vocals. The most rousing sing-along of the afternoon. Black Stone Cherry emerged on to the stage to help with the chorus. Beautiful stuff. The Headhunters won a whole lot of new friends today.

Back to the Blues tent for King King, who were running late. Alan Nimmo looked a little anxious at the sound check, but emerged with his band soon after, fully attired with kilt in place, and looking much happier. The tent was brimful for one of the most anticipated sets of the day. The band’s blues rock tempo is infectious, only bettered by Nimmo’s contagious enthusiasm. This was a scorching live show.

King King have come a long way in a short space of time. The majority of the crowd were singing along to opener ‘Losing Control’ and even more so to ‘Waking Up’. There were some subtle changes of gear in the set too, with later tracks bringing a more lush and even funky sound.

The band were clearly enjoying the atmosphere and this had the feel of a relaxed, confident show. Sometimes when Nimmo was in the middle of another electrifying solo he closed his eyes and cocked his head back as if he was locked away in a little place all of his own. Then he kicked back into the riff and dazzled the crowd with another cheeky grin. A band going places.

I stopped by the Rising Stars stage again. Dirty Thrills’ material had struck a chord with me earlier in the year. Live, they made more of a visual impact than an aural one. Dirty Thrills (great name!)  bounded on to the stage and looked the business in dress sense, attitude and work ethic. There’s a touch of the Hanoi Rocks meets Quireboys in a sleazy backroom bar about their appearance. Guitarist Jack Fawdry was stripped to the waist showing off his heavily tattooed torso and wielding the most beat up Telecaster on view all Festival.

Frontman Louis James was everywhere, crawling over the speakers and writhing round the stage. He gave the vocals everything too. Probably too much. A lot of top end shrieking came through and a more than enough dallying up and down the scales. Loose and gritty in their recorded output, the material here was just a fraction on the sloppy, disintegrating side. Massive respect for the energy and effort, but a smidge more composure would serve them well.

Back to the Blues tent, where the crowd had thinned out since King King, though still a great reception for Tax The Heat. This four-piece, attired in collared shirts, smart waistcoats and ties, offered something a little different. Led by Jack Veale on vocals and guitar, their oevre was a stripped back hard rock sound with shades of classic R & B whipped up by some dynamic arrangements and great layered harmonies.

‘Heavy Heart’ and ‘Some Sympathy’ sounded sharp and gritty. Later came an eye-opening  cover of the Yardbirds track ‘Lost Woman’ that boasted a funky guitar makeover and some insane drumming. Jack Taylor’s simple kit was set up close to the front of the stage and, uncharacteristically in guitar driven rock, he was the star of the show. Taylor pummelled the life out of his tubs and almost knocked them over. During this virtuoso display, the rest of the band gathered round and ensured the spotlight remained firmly on the young skinsman.

The set closed with ‘Highway Home’, a track infused with a cool ‘60’s pop vibe. Sometimes the guitars struggled to cut through the mix and there was an overall bass heavy tone. Despite this, Tax The Heat marked themselves out as a quality band with their own take on where they want to be.

I stayed under canvas for Devin Townsend, billed alongside Che’ Aimee Dorval as The Casualties of Cool . This was a disappointing set, though not really of the performers’ making. The duo played a series of laid back, almost ambient compositions with Townsend underplaying fluid guitar lines between Dorval’s quiet, hypnotic vocals. Some of the material had a country vibe, others a jazz influence. Each was played against rhythm backing tracks. An old style oversize tape machine acted as a prop and was picked out by a white spotlight at the back of the stage.

And then Airbourne cranked up on the main stage at the other end of the field, totally overpowering this mellow, low key performance. Unless you were in the front two rows, there was little chance of picking up any more of the subtleties. The blues tent is in direct line of the main stage. This had not been a problem with any of the acts who played at a louder volume. But now it was bad timing. Many people left at this point and I joined the exodus back to the main stage.

Airbourne are simply irrespressible. Despite the Devin Townsend upstaging, within two tracks I had a stupid grin on my face. Big fat slices of AC/DC-ness like ‘Ready To Rock’ and the anthemic ‘Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast’ hit the spot. I was not alone. The band are perfect Festival performers: sledgehammer riffs, uncompromising delivery and more hooks than a butcher’s window.

Joel O’Keeffe, stripped to the waist and thrashing his Gibson Explorer for all it was worth is absolutely the focus of the band. He orchestrated a now regular theatre piece of climbing up the video screen rigging in order to prompt a stooge stage manager to come out and remonstrate in mock finger-wagging gesticulation. O’Keefe came down and then launched into the crowd on the shoulders of roadies, belting out the fiery lick to ‘Girls In Black’ for the whole trip.

The band don’t have that many great songs in my humble opinion. ‘Runnin’ Wild and Free’ closed the set and it is easily their best. But they make what they have got go a long way. Top entertainment.

As were Thunder. Though they have much stronger material. It had been years since I last encountered this lot. In the meantime, some of their albums have been patchy and poorly received.  ‘Wonder Days’, maybe the best track from last year’s album of the same name, launched the festivities. Thunder were clearly back to form.

Danny Bowes, clad in stylish white denim jacket and bringing out all his stagecraft was straight into the audience participation, leading renditions of  ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’ and ‘Higher Ground’. The latter was one of four tracks in a shortish set to feature from the band’s debut ‘Back Street Symphony’ way back in 1990. That title track was ripped out with a crunching riff, Luke Morley absolutely smoking on lead guitar.

‘I Love You More Than Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was another crowd pleaser and when Bowes teed up ‘When Love Walked In’ is it wrong to say I had a little tingle down my spine in the sing- along first verse? An elongated ‘Dirty Love’ closed out the set, the band wringing out every last drop of banter with the crowd and bringing the dance party to a joyous conclusion. The swagger was back.

Procul Harum were headlining over on the prog stage and had a beautiful sound. Rather surprisingly, they kicked off with a three-chord blues cover, before advancing to more familiar symphonic and prog rock territory with ‘The Truth Won’t Fade Away’; Gary Brooker delivering a mournful lyric over a lush guitar and keyboard mix.

Songs like ‘Homburg’ with its poetic lyrics and ‘Robert’s Box’ featured guitar well up in the mix, the latter in particular saw Geoff Whitehorn dish out a scintillating solo. Brooker masterminded the keyboards from stage left and Geoff Dunn parked out right delivered some lovely colour from behind his bank of Hammonds.

‘Man With A Mission’ kept the mood bubbling but after the poignant ‘The Old English Dream’ it was time to move on to the main stage via a quick visit to Warren Haynes in the tent. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ would regrettably have to wait for another show.

I only caught two or three songs from the Haynes gang, but was immediately taken with the scope and depth of the sound. The stage was packed with 6 musos strung out in front of the drums, interchanging basses, banjos, mandolins, ukeleles, fiddles and guitars. The back of the stage looked like the stock room of a music shop.

This free-range ensemble worked up a tingly, intense firestorm of a sound. The players all carefully watched each other and somehow made the music coherent. Every instrument had its place. In amongst it all, Haynes was the only one with his head down, coaxing tremulous slide grooves out of his care worn Les Paul, bouncing off the rest of his crew. It was hard to know where to look next.

So instead I looked at the main stage. Black Stone Cherry were wrapping up the Ramblin Man Fair 2016 in some hot southern style. The set was a mix of established songs, new material and covers. Willie Dixon’s ‘Built For Comfort’ and George Thorogood’s ‘Bad To The Bone’, segued into ‘Soulcreek’ and were given the full works. Ben Wells on rhythm guitar careered over the stage in an adrenalin-fuelled frenzy, with Chris Robertson holding court front and centre.

Crowd favourites ‘White Trash Millionare’ and ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’, smashed out in bombastic fashion, brought the main set to a close. The encore featured appropriately enough, ‘The Rambler’, before we were all sent on our way, even more fittingly, with a speed version of ‘Ace of Spades.’ Just about the perfect curtain fall on a memorable, breathless weekend of fine music.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Paul Clampin

 

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