The fourth renewal of this Classic, Southern, Blues and Prog festival had been brought forward by a month or so. It had also struggled to capture the imagination of many with its low-key roster. Bands like Bad Company and Poison were rumoured to have pulled out. As a consequence, the festival site was significantly less extensive than previous years and was also shorn of one of its stages, leaving only three. A smaller arena had a plus side because the day still felt busy, whilst offering plenty of space. The atmosphere was undiminished: relaxed, friendly and fun.
Saturday’s line up in particular had come in for a hefty dose of criticism. Indeed, headliners Mott The Hoople wouldn’t have shaken my personal tree. Talking to the punters here, views about their show was mixed. Many left early, but others were impressed. “Five guitars. What’s not to like!” one fan declared. And the energy put in by a 79 year old Ian Hunter was respected. Though comments about Ariel Bender resembling Corporal Jones out of Dad’s Army were less generous!
Elsewhere, Myles Kennedy’s set seemed to have brought the house down. No-one had a bad word. Those Damn Crows and The Cadillac Three appeared to have received the thumbs up too.
Sunday’s dance card looked better, though got off to a slightly shaky start as problems on the Blues Stage meant the bands had been shuffled back by an hour and a half. In the meantime, I caught a bit of Second Relation in the Prog Tent. Their prog, funk, jazz mash up was a bit too Level 42 for my groove. But to be fair to them they were playing tight, fluid lines with some splashes of heavy guitar work, layered vocals and some (underwhelming) keyboard flourishes.
I headed to the Blues Stage and enjoyed The Connor Selby Band whom I would have missed if the timings had not slipped.
Selby is only 20 and his set was one of a trio of up and coming blues rock acts to perform on the day. Blues rock is seriously alive and well in the UK. Selby’s blend of Clapton/Kossoff/Bonamassa influences were allied to hints of folk, soul, country and gospel produce a full, gritty performance. The sound is augmented by rich rhythm guitar and a sharp backing band.
The next unexpected treat of the day was the opening act on the Main Stage. The Last Internationale are a three-piece from New York of whom, despite forming 10 years ago, I knew very little. This was an explosive set of sleazy, punky, garage, protest rock.
The band are driven by Edgey Pires’s furious guitar sound and vocalist/bassist Delila Paz who is a real asset. She looks fabulous and gives a real live-wire performance. So early in the day, Paz managed to elicit some call-and-response from the audience in the slow-burning ‘Wanted Man’. Pires was cajoling bucketfuls of echo and sustain out of his Telecaster, whilst the vocals were spiced with huge reverb. There’s something of The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs about the look and soulful voice.
‘Hard Times’ was entertaining enough, though the song didn’t quite live up to the opening ‘Black Betty’-inspired rhythm tones. An acoustic version of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ followed and saw Paz jump off the stage into the crowd for an informal group singalong. The portly gentleman in an undersized t-shirt with whom Paz shared a dance and a hug thought all his Christmases and Birthdays had come at once. She has great stage presence and loads of confidence to go along with the campaigning songs and socially aware lyrics.
The band had another trick up their sleeves. Billy Sheehan emerged to find a gorgeous fat bass line on the romp through ‘1968’. Watching him go toe to toe with Pires in the tumultuous climax to the song was an early highlight on a day of great music. Sheehan also provided a compelling solo to weave more magic into the moment.
The suspicion remains that The Last Internationale don’t yet have enough strong material to match the fireworks of the guitarist or the magnetism of the singer. Another guitar or keyboards might help to fill out the sound. On the other hand, I don’t think they are looking for a regular rock sound. A refreshing, entertaining set and a band to keep an eye on.
There was only time to catch the closing couple of numbers from Goldray in the prog tent. Clashes, clashes… Even with this brief glimpse of ‘Forest’ and ‘Soulchild’, it was reassuring to acknowledge that Kenwyn House, once of Reef, and gang continue to hold nothing back. Gold glitter capes and waistcoats, head-dresses and flouncy dresses adorned the protagonists who were valiantly keeping high energy 60’s psychedelia alive with 21st century clout. Love ‘em. The crowd did.
The Kris Barras Band has been receiving favourable reviews on the back of the current tour and new album. Things are also looking up for Kris who is the new frontman for Supersonic Blues Machine, playing alongside Billy Gibbons and the like. There was a keen sense of anticipation from the sizeable crowd out on the Blues Stage.
The four-piece emerged through a big enough dry ice smokescreen to put the Medway Fire Brigade on moorland fire alert. Barras soon had musical fireworks exploding around the stage.
The opening salvoes from the band’s first two albums were immediately on the money: gorgeous, deep guitar tones matched by a confident swagger. The main man’s vocals give the music some real character, blending both gruff and smooth at the same time. No mean feat.
The keyboards of Josiah J Manning augment the full sound throughout, adding swell to an intro here and underpinning the rhythm there. By turns, Barras deals in sweet, sharp and rough guitar lines, nailing many dramatic solos and sometimes mixing lead and rhythm in the style of Wilko Johnson.
The new material set up the show well. ‘Propane’ was less hard edged and found a more accessible, commercial groove. The band used a delicious keyboard rumble to provoke some well-timed audience participation.
The gospel-tinged ‘Hail Mary’ kept the party flowing. The track is a high point and again, Barras found a gorgeous rolling riff.
Barras carried off easy banter with the crowd and was comfortable on the stage. At one point the band created a serious ZZ Top groove, where Barras strapped on a custom square guitar that Gibbons himself would covet, before dealing a few choreographed moves with Elliot Blackler on bass.
The closer, the power ballad ‘Watching Over Me’ advertised the commercial qualities of the band with big vocal hooks and a strong guitar/keyboard dynamic. Barras ended by indulging in a bit showboat tricks: playing behind his back and then plucking strings with his teeth. An excellent set that left us all wanting more. The band are going places.
The trio of burgeoning British blues-rock acts on the stage was completed by Laurence Jones. His fourth studio album, ‘The Truth’ has brought a crossover flavour to his material. However, interestingly, the crowd was more sparse than for Kris Barras. Jones may have suffered because of the clash with Sons of Apollo on the main stage, though it is also true that Barras has a higher profile right now.
Whether or not Jones had made the comparison himself was irrelevant because he put in the kind of compelling, insistent performance that would have won him stacks of new fans.
The varied set showed off Jones’ technical skills with some beautiful, fluid soloing and extended instrumental breaks on tracks like ‘Never Good Enough’ and ‘Don’t You Let Me Go’. Lush Hammond organ was prominent and gave a classy yet retro feel to the music.
The whole band was tight though. The extended, slow burning ‘Thunder in the Sky’, was filled with dramatic pauses, beautiful changes of pace and showcasing a cataclysmic solo.
The band picked up the pace for the closer. Some fret-burning and heavy riffing on ‘You Don’t Keep Fooling Me’ ensured Jones and crew left the stage on a high point.
I had made a brief return trip to the Main Stage during Jones’ set for a glimpse of Sons of Apollo; and went back to see their closing moments after Jones had departed. Three times I passed Bernie Marsden at the same spot by the VIP tent in conversation with a steady stream of fans, all of whom were expressing variations on the theme of “You’re a legend you are!” Bernie was due to jam with Govt Mule on their headlining Blues Stage set later. A treat I sadly missed.
Neither did I see very much of the all-star Sons. With a line up close to heavy prog heaven, the stage resembled a high end recording studio with Mike Portnoy sitting behind a massive kit dominating the centre stage and guitars of various shapes and hues stacked up in the wings.
Ron Thal and Sheehan traded double-neck licks with abandon and Jeff Scott Soto whipped up the crowd with some showbiz muscle. The band were clearly enjoying themselves with enough Grandstanding to give the World Cup coverage a run for its money. ‘Signs of the Times’ and later ‘Coming Home’ stood out. The Sons deal in dense, complex arrangements, which at times sounded a tad lumbering, particularly in a Festival setting. Nevertheless, the audience reaction was very positive. I hadn’t seen enough to properly get into the show and would love to see them in front of their own crowd.
Half an hour later, Blackberry Smoke ambled out onto the Main Stage in a manner at the polar opposite to Sons of Apollo: understated, chilled and ever so slightly hairier than the last time I saw them.
They cruised straight into ‘Fire In The Hole’, backed up with a powerful ‘Waiting For The Thunder’, two of the strongest tracks in their canon which got the crowd onside. Charlie Starr’s charismatic vocals were particularly emphasised by these cuts.
Attired head to foot in denim, topped out with Aviator shades and wild sideburns, Starr cut a relaxed figure centre stage. “Kinda looks like the Georgia mountains out there” he drawled, nodding towards the North Downs beyond the park. The band as a whole was in a good place. Paul Jackson on second guitar regularly peered out into the crowd and grinned.
Next up the boogie-swagger of ‘Six Ways to Sunday’ snaked around the arena, laced with Brandon Still’s excellent bar room piano. With a fine new album, ‘Find A Light’ hitting the racks earlier this year, I was hoping the new material would get some live time early in the set. But that would not be the Blackberry way. Instead the tried and tested tunes kept the foot-stomping action high with the big chorus of ‘Let It Burn’ and ‘Sleeping Dogs’.
The latter is where the Smoke traditionally take the mood down and this felt dangerously early to be doing so here. But no worries. The band judged a Sunday afternoon mood pretty well. The mid-section electric piano shuffle/guitar mood music broke out into an inspired snatch of ‘Come Together’ and drew the biggest cheer of the set.
Nothing from the new platter appeared until about 25 minutes in when the hard driving ‘Run Away From It All’ won some new fans. The new album is strong and this track has a great change up on the instrumental section.
‘Shaking Hands With The Holy Ghost’ had most people round me bellowing out the words. It’s often surprising what connects in the festival world.
Starr conducted a group singalong on a largely acoustic ‘I Ain’t Got the Blues Anymore’ and followed up by again belying their laid back image. ‘Flesh and Bone’ is a dark, dirty, brooding piece and in some ways is their most out-of-character song from ‘Find A Light’. It was a brilliant but risky choice and went down a storm.
‘One Horse Town’, another chance for audience participation, and ‘Ain’t Much Left of Me’ wrapped up a hugely enjoyable set from a great band surely not far away from a stellar breakthrough.
Things had been not been going well in the Prog tent. I pitched up for Fish’s headline set at the appointed hour to see frazzled stage crew humping bits of equipment around and running through an insanely rushed sound check. Apparently the Von Hertzen Brothers had insisted on using their own front of house kit and the changeover for the next band took an age. Fish ultimately suffered the most because his 90 minute set was pruned to something like 70. Contractually, he was obliged to finish before the Main Stage headliners opened up.
The crowd were pretty restless before the band hit the stage. Under the circumstances, the guys put in a heroic shift. Yes, the vocals were bass heavy; yes, Robin Boult played lead over some of the singing; OK, the keyboards were muddy or missing. But for raw emotion, tangible drama and visceral angst, this show was remarkable. Clearly the band could not really hear each other’s instruments and with Fish calling out the revised running order after each track, the set had an edgy, by-the-bootstraps feel.
Fish was clearly absolutely livid at the turn of events. There was barely any of the Big Man’s usual banter with the crowd in the early stages, except to dedicate the lyrics of ‘State of Mind’ to Theresa May. Instead he poured bile into the vocal performance. The entire ‘Warm Wet Circles’ suite was delivered as if on a razor’s edge. The sustained and genuine applause from the packed tent finally induced a broad grin from Fish.
‘Sugar Mice’ was a full-on, open-throated participation event. This was as physical a performance as I had ever seen from Fish, contorting and jerking over every nuanced phrase.
An electric and uplifting ‘Slainte Mhath’ gave way to ‘Incommunicado’ for a truncated encore where Fish was actually dancing. But still raging. He ended by flicking the Vs to the Main Stage to riotous whooping: triumph in the face of adversity; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat… add your own clichés. This was epic.
There was time to get front and centre before The Cult made their entrance on the Main Stage where the atmosphere seemed muted compared to the febrile environment of the Prog Tent. A whirlwind ‘Wild Flower’ kicked off proceedings, and a decent atmosphere soon built.
The Cult, playing the UK for the first time in well over two years, are part of the soundtrack of my youth. Though I never did quite ‘get’ Ian Astbury. 30-odd years later I still struggle. He is a bundle of contradictions wrapped up in an enigma. Here he flipped between near-disrespect (“Loosen up people, c’mon!” he implored a few times) and complete humility when taking the applause at the end of the set. Maybe it’s all a joke I’m not in on.
Bellyache over, this was in fact a very entertaining set. The band looked great and sounded even better. Astbury’s voice (and his man-bun) stood up really well; and Billy Duffy still throws the most refined shapes in rock ‘n’ roll, especially when he windmills that ridiculously oversized Gretsch semi-acoustic.
From the Goth days, ‘Rain’ and ‘Nirvana’ were enervating and impassioned; and later ‘Spiritwalker’ from the band’s first album as The Cult was breathtakingly good. In between, the material from ‘Electric’ fared really well with the punters. Both ‘Li’l Devil’ and ‘Peace Dog’ sounded massive with those slabs of Rick Rubin-inspired riffery reproduced on a grand scale.
There was a mid-set lull, though. ‘GOAT’ and the misfiring psychedelia of ‘The Phoenix’ dropped the baton somewhat. After ‘Deeply Ordered Chaos’, Astbury muttered “Sorry if that was a bit deep. It takes a minute”, ignoring the giant inflated penis that was bouncing around in the front rows. Delicious irony.
‘Sweet Soul Sister’ was hitting the spot and the crowd were back onside until the overlong atmospheric keyboard/guitar passage took away some of the track’s towering majesty. A chop shop job.
We were soon back to bombastic, railway-sleeper riffing with ‘King Contrary Man’ and then the home run to a thrilling climax begun by the staggering crunch and uplifting vocal of ‘Fire Woman’. ‘Love Removal Machine’ followed and then the one and only ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ to bring the Fair to a jubilant end.
There were so many genuinely high points in this set that it was almost (but not quite) possible to overlook some of the tosh.
And so the fourth Ramblin’ Man Fair closed in triumph, despite trepidation before the weekend. Dates for next year have already been announced and this hackneyed reporter comes over all warm and fuzzy at the prospect. This festival has quickly become a firm favourite because of the accessibility, friendliness and quality of the acts. Yes, bigger headliners would have made this year even better, but it is a thrill to know Ramblin’ Man has put down roots here for a while longer.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Paul Clampin
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Power Plays w/c 18 February 2019
SKYFEVER Kings (indie)
THE NILE DELTAS Don’t Play With Me (indie)
MIKE HYDER Don’t Look Behind You (indie)
HIGH TREASON Silver Bullets (3MS Music)
THE EXPERIMENTAL The Energy (indie)
Featured Albums w/c 18 February (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 TOBY HITCHCOCK Reckoning (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 REVOLUTION HIGHWAY (Grooveyard Records)
14:00-16:00 DANNI NICHOLLS The Melted Morning (Danni Nicholls Music)
Albums That Time Forgot (Mon-Fri)
DRIVING MRS SATAN Popscotch (2013)
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