It was the best of times. It was the wettest of times. For the first time in history, the four corners of the TeamRock universe came spectacularly together in the Garden Of England for a two-day musical extravaganza that wasn’t going to let a minor thing like the great British weather get in the way of having an amazing time.
At this point, some of you may well be thinking “here we go again”. “I’ve had my fair share of festivals and some of them have been damn good,” we hear you cry. “What is so bleedin’ special about the this one?”
The signs, admittedly, are not all that great when everyone arrives on site for the second day of the Ramblin’ Man Fair. While day one on the Saturday had been blessed with perfect, dry, warm festival conditions and dawn-to-dusk sunshine, this is going to be something of an uphill battle as driving rain and strong winds do their best to literally dampen spirits.
And all the people standing around at the bar saying “you should have been here yesterday” and “the Scorpions were amazing!” do not exactly help matters, either. It seems there’s a lot to live up to as Sunday gets underway.
But when the going gets tough, the tough head straight for the nearest shelter. For many of the revellers on site, this turns out to be a circus tent, which is home for the weekend to The Blues stage. In the very best show business tradition, there is something here for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are an out-and-out blues aficionado or just looking for a place to avoid the rain. The Blues tent is calling the children home.
Belfast singer VerseChorusVerse kicks off proceedings at lunchtime. Despite being a “5ft fuck-all Irishman” (these are his words, not ours) and having to go head-to-head with buzz-band of the moment Blues Pills, who take to the main Classic Rock stage at the same time, he nevertheless gets the day off to a flying start. At times, the thunderous roar of Blues Pills – who can be heard from all the way across the other end of the site – doesn’t do him any favours, but his growling Tom Waits voice and unwavering sense of humour win him many new fans among those gathered inside the tent.
Next up is Ian Siegal, who is one of the most magnetic performers on the blues circuit today. As with the conditions that met the opening act, there are times when the noise from the main stage threatens to drown him out, but Siegal being the seasoned pro that he is carries on regardless. The tent is absolutely packed as he entrances the congregation with enchanting renditions of John The Revelator and Oh Mary Don’t You Weep. He even leads the choir in that most popular of modern psalms One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer. But at the end of his set it is still completely chucking it down outside the tent – so much for the sun always shining on the righteous.
The mid-afternoon slot is given over to the teenage wunderkind Aaron Keylock, who has landed himself a contract with the Mascot record label, currently also home to the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Gov’t Mule and many more of the big-hitters. There is a palpable sense of “this kid better be good” among the discerning pockets of the audience as the youngster takes to the stage. Keylock might look young enough to still need help with his geography homework (not to mention the kind of flowing locks that could turn a few of the more follicly challenged festivalgoers green with envy), but there is no doubt that he has what it takes to become a major player.
Opting for the take-no-prisoners approach, the fresh-faced Keylock launches straight into his first single, Medicine Man, which shows off his Rory Gallagher-esque prowess with the slide. He’s clearly not old enough to remember the late, great Irishman himself, but he sure can play like him. Like a lot of the younger performers on the circuit, he still needs to work on his stage presence and banter, but they will come with time. He also wins the inaugural Ramblin’ Man Fair irony-in-the-face-of-adversity award, when he introduces the third song in his act, The Sun Is Gonna Shine, as the rain continues to lash down outside the canvas walls. If only, some of us think.
By the time the Mick Ralphs Blues Band arrive on stage, the Dunkirk spirit is well and truly kicking in at the Ramblin’ Man Fair. We’re not going to let something as minor as a few (million) drops of rain stop us from enjoying the music we love. Hell no. Have plastic poncho, will travel – that’s our motto. No matter where you are on site, everyone remains good humoured and doggedly determined to enjoy themselves in the face of adversity.
And as a founder member of Mott The Hoople and Bad Company, Ralphs has a perfect pedigree all of his own. The set by his band is pure old school, guilt-free rock and blues, and The Blues tent is all the better for it. From Born Under A Bad Sign to the Bad Company classic Feel Like Making Love, the audience laps up every minute of their electrifying show. But even Ralphs’ eye-popping Hawaiian shirt can’t coax the sun out. At least he tried, eh?
British blues rocker Danny Bryant best sums up the mood of the day when he walks on stage and announces: “I’d like to welcome everyone who’s hiding from the rain.” By this point, there is a sizeable crowd inside the tent and it’s hard to tell just how many people are here for shelter or for the acts themselves, although there are quite a few people looking at each other and muttering, “Who is this bloke? He’s really good” as Bryant tears into Prisoner Of The Blues.
If there are unbelievers in the crowd, Bryant soon wins them over. It is his birthday, after all, and yes, the bellowing inhabitants of The Blues tent do indeed sing Happy Birthday to him half way through the set, because that’s just how we roll. Bryant holds the audience in the palm of his hand as he tears into a long and dramatic solo on the atmospheric Gun Town before bringing the house down in style with the rocking Razor Sharp.
While all the acts performing on The Blues stage enjoy healthy crowds on the day, the biggest draw proves to be Joanne Shaw Taylor. It can surely only be a matter of time before she is crowned the first lady of British blues rock, and here in Kent people are queuing to get into the tent for a glimpse of her performance. Looking relaxed and confident, she owns the stage from start to finish, with a set that leans heavily on her most recent album The Dirty Truth. The slinky groove of Mud Honey gets everyone nicely warmed up and a stirring version of Frankie Miller’s Jealousy proves what a powerhouse of a singer she is too.
And miracle of miracles, such is the vitality of her performance, she even persuades the wind and rain to bugger off. By the time Shaw Taylor leaves the stage the site is basking in sunshine and all is right with the world. Suddenly people start to leave the cosy confines of the beer tents and VIP area and enjoy the best the British summertime has to offer. It is like the first day of spring all over again, and we have all lived to fight another day.
Fortunately, we’re not done yet and The Blues stage has saved the best until last with one final act – the legendary Bernie Marsden. At first glance, the former Whitesnake member must be one of the most unlikely guitar heroes on the face of the planet, but the deafening chant of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” signals the oncoming masterclass in rock and blues.
The setlist might provide an unashamed trip down memory lane for many, but no one in the audience is complaining about that. From Born Under A Bad Sign (which by our calculations is the winner of the most-played song of the day award) to Key To The Highway, Marsden proves he is still the man when it comes to the kind of riffs that make drivers put their feet down on open roads.
And there are, as you’d expect, plenty of treats for the diehard Whitesnake fans, including Who’s Foolin’ Who?, which Marsden says was written back in those days, although it was never recorded with the group. And he ends the set appropriately enough, with one of Whitesnake’s greatest hits and one of the biggest songs in his armoury, the timeless Here I Go Again.
The inaugural two-day event is rounded off with stellar performances by both Seasick Steve and Gregg Allman over on the main Classic Rock stage. Nowadays, the summer months are packed with every type of festival under the sun. As the new kid on the block, the Ramblin’ Man Fair had a lot to prove, but we reckon it’s up to the challenge. It certainly ticks all the right boxes – good quality beer (we did the research, trust us), proper food and a musical line-up that is low on hype and rich in talent. It might not have had the cool factor that some festivals out there crave so desperately (and in some cases try to fake), but the vibe here is nice and relaxed, and everyone is well up for hearing some great music. Which, surely, is what it’s all about anyway.
And if the punters are still smiling after five or six hours of torrential wind and rain, then you must be doing something right. One thing is for sure – we’re definitely going to need a bigger tent next year. Bring it on.