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
Day 1 (23 July)
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Power Plays w/c 6 November
SALVATION JAYNE Juno (indie)
STRAWBS The Nails Of The Hands Of Christ (Esoteric Antenna)
7 MILES TO PITTSBURGH Same Sized Soul (indie)
ELECTRIC DUCKS Something In Your Eyes (Store For Music)
Featured Albums w/c 6 November (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 KEE OF HEARTS Kee Of Hearts (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 VANDENBERG’S MOONKINGS Mk II (Mascot)
14:00-16:00 SAMANTHA FISH Belle Of The West (Ruf Records)
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