Two security guards on the gate are looking a little bemused. “Was it like this last year?” asks one. “Everyone seems… so nice!”
“Yeah,” replies the other. “There’s no trouble here.”
And that sums up the atmosphere at Ramblin’ Man. This is a festival that attracts four generations and is a celebration of rock. Not just in the music across four stages, but also in what else is offered. There’s a stall selling customised banjos (seriously!), a Wall Of Death that gives you the chance to witness white-knuckle vintage motorbike stunts head on, and an Artist Bazaar, which has Q&A sessions with the likes of Roger Dean and Saxon’s Biff Byford, plus various bands on the bill. Oh, and there’s an exhibition of Dean’s work over the weekend.
All that in a layout that’s fan-friendly. The four stages are cleverly spaced out to try to limit any sound-bleed between them, but the walking distance is… well, it’s no distance at all. The food and booze stalls are in a compact area, and there are bottles of water in a huge plastic ‘honesty’ bin. They trust people here to pay the requisite cost by putting coins in a slot. It’s an unexpected and nice touch.
But at the core of it all is the music. And it’s local hopefuls Leogun who kick things off, on the newly introduced Rising Stage. Their dynamic rock’n’roll groove is enticing. In fact, over the two days, there are a succession of quality young bands appearing on this stage, showing the grass-roots scene in this country is strong. The energetic Massive Wagons, the thrusting City Of Thieves and the classy Colour Of Noise are certainly worth a mention from the first day.
It takes a little while for the Main Stage to get going. In all honesty, neither the slightly plodding Inglorious nor the anonymous The Dead Daisies offer much sparkle. The Prog Stage, though, fares better early on, with IO Earth’s gentle creativity and the colourful Frost.The latter, dressed in garish beachwear-style clothing, prove very entertaining.
The weather is balmy and the atmosphere relaxed but building by the time Terrorvision hit the Main Stage. This is really a nostalgia trip for those with fond memories of the band from their mid-90s heyday and there’s a knot of fans close to the front getting into the vibe of My House and Celebrity Hit List. But those who didn’t get into them back in the day are simply bemused, and even some who were fans two decades ago have now lost sympathy with the Terrors. Ginger Wildheart, meanwhile, is adequate but seems a little lost – his presentation needs a smaller environment.
While Purson are energetic and hugely impressive on the Prog Stage, Hogjaw surprise everyone in the quickly filling Outlaw Country tent. They’d played the night before at the Maidstone Leisure Centre, supporting Thin Lizzy duo Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson on a Ramblin’ preamble show that provided welcome entertainment for those camping close by. Now they show their worth with one of the best performances of the weekend. These Arizona cardinals have a sound that combines The Allman Brothers with Molly Hatchet; southern mania in the sun.
The sun? Ah yes, the secret ingredient to the festival’s success. Tubes of sunscreen are as prevalent as cans of beer. Or ear protectors – after a while you get used to seeing young kids bopping with their parents to the music, while wearing essential hearing protection. That’s the thing about Ramblin’ Man: you’ve got children grooving in pushchairs, while at the other end of the scale, you’ve got considerably more venerable personages reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ at the Monsters Of Rock festival, when the sky was ablaze with hurled bottles of piss.
There are no bottles flashing through the air as Europe crank into action. They’re not really at their best but still get a strong reaction, and when the parping intro to The Final Countdown begins, even those sipping in the VIP area go crazy. Joey Tempest slyly nods towards David Coverdale by leading in with a quick quip of, “Here’s a song for ya!”
Supersuckers reignite their flame on the Outlaw Country Stage – they’re the Cheap Trick of country rock. White Buffalo then stoke up the heat, before Hayseed Dixie headline with a performance that’s pure, riotous fun.
On the Prog Stage, there’s a huge crowd for Uriah Heep, who open with Gypsy and close with Easy Livin’, cruising through the evergreen faves in between.
Thin Lizzy are on superb form on the Main Stage. While the band themselves seem a little underwhelmed afterwards by their performance, those out front lap it up. It’s a potent run through a set of inevitable classics, with the returning Darren Dean Wharton given a chance to shine as his keyboards lead the band into Angel Of Death. And there’s a four-guitar attack lined up, with Midge Ure coming on for Cowboy Song and The Boys Are Back In Town. He immediately seems to slot straight in. A stunning rendition of Whiskey In The Jar is a popular way to finish, with outbreaks of terrible dancing and out-of-tune hollering all over the field.
Family headline the Prog Stage, but the audience is sparse for them, and frontman Roger Chapman is continually irked by the volume seeping through from the main stage. Yet despite all of this, the band are magnificent, even though they disappoint the small throng by not coming back for an encore.
Whitesnake are a revelation headlining the main stage. Despite the predictions that they could be embarrassing, they’re in cracking form. Coverdale’s voice holds up very well, the band sound soulful and emotional, and the setlist is almost faultless. Almost, because inexplicably, Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City is cut short and leads into Judgement Day. That aside, it’s the best Whitesnake performance for years. Coverdale is as charming and affable as ever, amusingly referring to everyone as ‘ramblers’. Still Of The Night ends the set and the live music. A fine way to go into the night.
Usually the second day of any festival is pockmarked with over-partied casualties. But the only casualties here are the Casualties Of Cool, Devin Townsend’s blues-style project. The duo play on the Blues Stage, but their quirky take on electric folk perplexes the crowd. Still, people could check them out later at their leisure on the live charity CD being sold here. Featuring one track each from most of the bands, it’s recorded on the spot and fans could pick up a copy at the end of the second day, with all proceeds going to Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy.
The Rising Stage delivers up another name worth noting. The Will Wilde Band are a 70s-style blues rock band who are capable and confident. The much‑heralded Cats In Space are this stage’s headliners today, but their throwback to early-80s pomp doesn’t yet have substance.
The Main Stage kicks off with the sparking aggression of The Graveltones, before The Kentucky Headhunters light up the sky with their country rock parlance. The Fierce And The Dead’s instrumental set is a fine opening gambit on the Prog Stage, while Blurred Vision’s wide-ranging, epic performance wins many new fans.
Just how unusual this festival is becomes clear when one person, so impressed with the food at one stall, actually makes a point of going back there, just to congratulate them. Festival gourmands elsewhere are normally more inclined to show appreciation by flinging their comestibles to the ground at the vendor’s feet.
King King are so popular, the tent housing the Blues Stage has a massive overspill. But they live up to expectations, playing brilliant modern blues, as do the increasingly popular Tax The Heat.
While The Answer are in the mood with a stirring set on the Main Stage, the much-fancied The Cadillac Three come over as rather tedious to these ears – although it must be said, they do get a big reaction. On the Prog side of things, Headspace are raucous and dynamic, with Damian Wilson a thundering frontman. The Von Hertzen Brothers follow, and do so with style. Their mix of melody, grit and sophistication is exactly what’s needed for this time in the afternoon.
The same is also true of Airbourne on the Main Stage. They hit like a force of nature and their set is unrelenting. Sure, they’re a dumbo, straight-ahead barrel of boogie clichés, but that’s what you need at this juncture. They get the energy levels right up, ready for the last lap. As the Aussies strut offstage, one person buying a Ramblin’ Man T-shirt explains that it’s for future recognition. “In ten years’ time, I might be sitting in a pub wearing this shirt and someone might come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I was also there!’ It’s that community thing in rock.” And that’s how it feels this weekend – there’s a real communal spirit.
Walter Trout has a big crowd packed in front of the Blues Stage, and rightly so as he’s one of the foremost exponents of the craft. But he also shows his sense of gallows humour. Early on, in recognition of his recent, serious health issues, he says: “It’s great to be here. Mind you, for me it’s great to be anywhere!”
Hawkwind bring a little space-dust magic to the Prog Stage, with a set that pulls in classics such as Assault And Battery and Hassan I Sahba, as well as material from recent album The Machine Stops, “Our chart album!” vocalist Mr Dibbs proclaims proudly. They conclude with the inevitable Silver Machine, to a roar of approval.
You know what you’ll get with Thunder, and that’s why they’re so popular. Their set on the Main Stage is brimming with songs everyone knows, from Higher Ground to Love Walked In and Dirty Love. Danny Bowes even gets people doing what appear to be fitness workouts. It’s part of the Thunder appeal, and even Bowes’s dreaded dad dancing seems appropriate.
Warren Haynes headlines the Blues Stage, and he rightly attracts a big audience to soak up his consummate vibe. The man gets the best out of both his music and the fans.
There are a clutch of people who are keen to see Procol Harum headline the Prog Stage just to hear mainman Gary Brooker, MBE (as he’s introduced during the set) sing that song. But as the band show across a wide-ranging historic musical tour, there’s so much more to them than this. We get Homburg (one punter is especially disappointed to have missed this!), Conquistador, An Old English Dream and Salty Dog, before A Whiter Shade Of Pale is duly paraded. Brooker’s voice sounds startlingly sharp throughout, and he regularly shows a sense of self‑deprecating humour.
There were doubts expressed by some as to the wisdom of having Black Stone Cherry headlining the Main Stage. After this high-stepping, vaulting 90 minutes of manic, southern-flavoured ecstasy, all doubts are swept away. This band now belong on the biggest stages – they have the acumen, pacing and personality to take on this role. They use House Of Pain’s Jump Around as their intro, and it does get everyone jumping, and from Me And Mary Jane onwards, it’s rapid-fire rounds of great songs, the band having an ebullient rapport with the thousands of fans.
They crank out a suitably saddle-sore cover of George Thorogood’s Bad To The Bone and end the main set with the anthemic chant-along Blame It On The Boom Boom. The encore begins with the appropriate The Rambler, before they close their set, and the festival, with a crackling homage to Lemmy via Ace Of Spades.
As everyone files out, somebody says: “I don’t wanna leave. I want two or three more days here!”
Many vocally agree with this proclamation. Ramblin’ Man has become a fully fledged part of the rock summer. From prams to power chords, this year’s event was a winner.