Welcome to Ramblin’ Man Fair 2017. Three days of killer sounds, fantastic company, excellent food, gallons of quality ale and a non-stop flow of Cloven Hoof rum. From legends such as ZZ Top, Extreme, Saxon, Black Star Riders, UFO and Glenn Hughes to stars-in-the-ascendency like Rival Sons, Monster Truck, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Blues Pills to a whole host of freshly-minted new bands like Dirty Thrills, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown and Blackwater Conspiracy, everyone was catered for. And that’s without even mentioning the American Civil War Re-Enactment Society…
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way upfront – the gigantic, sopping wet elephant wearing wellies and a waterproof. Yes, it rained a little bit on Friday night and, er, more than a little bit on Saturday. But a) this is an outdoor festival, and b) this is the Great British Summer we’re talking about. A little bit of rain never hurt anybody, as the thousands of hardy souls who staunchly ignored the heavens’ ructions can vouch. And hey, Sunday was glorious.
This year’s big news came with the addition of Friday night’s entertainment. Not so much an extra day as a steel-plated hors d’ouevre to Saturday and Sunday’s main banquet, Friday evening’s four-band bill read like a who’s who of classic rock and metal. The Graham Bonnett Band and Last In Line bought the pedigree in the shape of their respective pasts and still-vibrant presents, but the crowd that packed in front of the stage for West coast heroes Y&T show just why they’re held up as one of the most criminally under-rated bands of the last 40 years. That’s not something you can say for Saxon, whose rampant headline show set the tone for the entire festival: if you’re not here to have a good time, then f**k off…
The Planet Rock Main Stage was understandably the focus of much of the weekend’s action. Despite the weather not quite behaving itself on Saturday, the massed throng of Ramblers witnessed a stellar mix of bands across the weekend, from Toseland’s hyper-kinetic modern take on classic rock to Canuck longhairs Monster Truck’s no-mess boogie metal.
Glenn Hughes drew one of the weekend’s biggest crowd for a career-spanning set (weirdly, Steve N’ Seagulls could be heard doing their Finnish country-hoedown-style cover of Deep Purple’s Burn on the Outlaw Country Stage at the same time that Glenn was playing on the main stage). Saturday’s headliners Extreme silenced the doubters with a masterful set – this was the first time they’ve topped a festival bill, but it won’t be the last – while ZZ Top lined up the classics and knocked ’em back one after the other on Sunday.
This year, the festival organisers address some of the soundclash problems that plagued the second stage at last year’s event. Located up a small incline away from the rest of the arena, there’s zero in the way of sonic overspill this time around.
The other big innovation in 2017 was to give the second stage over to a different genre of music on Saturday and Sunday. For the former, it was dubbed the Grooverider Stage and featured everyone from reggae-infused groove rockers Lionize and Tenacious D man Kyle Gass and his Band to headliners Rival Sons (who beg the question: why in the name of all that’s green aren’t this band huge?). On Sunday, the sounds flipped and it was rechristened The Prog Stage and included the likes of rising stars Iamthemorning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash and Canada’s own mad professor of prog Devin Townsend, who graciously stepped in as headliner after Kansas pulled out.
Away from the two bigger stages, the festivals fringes provided much of interest to the dedicated music fan. Down past the food stalls (ostrich burger, halloumi wrap or cheese-and-jalapeno-loaded fries? Decisions, decisions…) was the Outlaw Country Stage (as it was called on Saturday) and the Blues Stage (on Sunday).
The tent was packed on both days for the likes of Dan Baird & Homemade Sin, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joanne Shaw Taylor and the Quireboys, showing just how diverse the musical tastes of the Ramblin’ Man crowd really is (and hats off to larger-than-life bluesman Big Boy Bloater, who parked his camper van in the middle of the festival site and stayed there for the whole weekend).
The odd thing about Ramblin’ Man is that for all the veterans, the Rising Stage is always one of the most popular attractions of the weekend. A veritable phalanx of new bands showed that the old cliché about rock being dead is, frankly, a load of old bollocks. Some of the bands have been around the block in other incarnations – not least ex-Little Angels man Toby Jepson’s new outfit The Wayward Sons, and Northern Irish rockers Blackwater Conspiracy (formerly Million Dollar Reload). But there was plenty of hot-off-the-presses talent on show, including Xander And The Peace Pirates and blues-rock hotshot Kris Barras. Looks like rock’n’roll is safe in their hands.
In a crowded festival field, Ramblin’ Man succeeds where other festivals fail because it actually seems to care about the people who turn up. Whether it’s exclusive sets by Black Star Riders men Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson (a highlight being the singalong version of Ace Of Spades) and next-level guitar god Eric Gales in the VIP fan area, the sheer quality of the food on offer or even the brilliantly-designed festival merchandise (we’ll take a Clockwork Orange one in Large, please), it smacks of quality that even the odd burst of unwanted precipitation can’t dampen.
Where does Ramblin’ Man go in 2018? Well, there’s no shortage of legendary bands to headline it (and you can bet they’re starting thinking about that now), but the key to its ongoing success is the blend of the old and the new, the spectrum of music it covers with the rock field, and the respect with which it treats the community it has built. Ramblin’ Man wasn’t broke, and it didn’t need fixing. But they decided to make it even better anyway.
Same time next year?