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(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Rambling Man 2017: The Big Review

The weather may not have been fair for Ramblin’ Man, but the rock’n’roll won out over the rain

Friday

“Where is everybody?” asks Graham Bonnet, resplendent in a fluorescent pink jacket. With existing ticket holders expected to pay for a last-minute additional day in 2017 and the rain tipping it down at 4.20 on a Friday afternoon, it’s no wonder the attendance is somewhat thin. However, there’s no doubt that the ex-Rainbow/MSG/Alcatrazz singer is in fine voice.

No Ronnie James Dio holograms are necessary as Last In Line dust down a set of Dio standards, plus a smattering of self-penned songs you feel like you know but aren’t entirely sure.

With rhythm guitarist John Nymann sidelined with viral vertigo, Y&T perform as a trio for the first time in their 42-year history. Hurricane, Black Tiger and Rescue Me still sound wonderful, and a potential banana skin is sidestepped with consummate ease.

The rain holds off until the conclusion of a headline set from Saxon that drips with quality. Biff Byford eats festival crowds like this one for breakfast, and we laugh aloud at the sheer ludicrousness of statements such as: “Will someone please change my fucking microphone? This one’s not loud enough!” Like he did on this stage last year, Byford throws away the set-list as vintage gems such as the rarely performed Machine Gun rub shoulders with a smattering of the band’s finest latter‑day standouts.

Black Star Riders: a set of rousing, melodic, twin-guitar anthems.

Black Star Riders: a set of rousing, melodic, twin-guitar anthems.
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Saturday

The Dirty Thrills open the Grooverider stage on Saturday and show they’re a coming force. Their power and frenetic thirst for the blues proves to be unstoppable, and by the end of their short set, they’ve got a decent crowd hanging on every note.

Opening the main stage, Jared James Nichols has a confident strut, combining influences from Rory Gallagher and Mountain. A cover of the latter’s Mississippi Queen is an appealing way to finish the set.

Straight out of Nashville, Caitlin Koch has Barbie doll looks and a powerful voice. Run To The River is a pleasant enough advert for her smooth, saccharine flavoured country-pop, but what she peddles is ultimately rather soulless.

Putting the groove into the Grooverider Stage, Lionize sound fulsome and fruity, though the singer’s bulging one-piece gold outfit makes him resemble a superhero on the way to a Weight Watchers meeting.

Toseland are quickly building an enviable reputation as one of the best young British bands around. Their fiery performance here underlines their position of strength. And We’ll Stop At Nothing, which has been chosen as the Special Olympics theme, is a blazing anthem.

Jessica Lynn has the personality and sizzle factor lacked by Caitlin Koch, and not only does it look like she actually knows her bandmates, but it also appears that they’ve probably enjoyed some nights out together. The vibe is contagious.

The Picturebooks are truly bonkers. How else can you explain why the primitive combination of vocalist/guitarist Fynn Claus Grabke and drummer Philipp Mirtschink is almost orchestral in its sweep? Outrageously oddball, this duo are a live phenomenon.

Anyone who thinks British Lion are merely a vanity project for Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris isn’t paying attention to the reality. This is a nuts-and-bolts hard rock band, who have in frontman Richard Taylor a personality who’s the equal of Harris. Even the steady rain can’t dampen the crowd’s genuine enthusiasm.

Whiskeydick are unstoppable these days. The Texan pair begin with a breathless bluegrass kick and build from there. It’s a manic performance that holds the attention, and the definition of outlaw country.

Away from the Tenacious D mothership, Kyle Gass shows he’s a talent in his own right. His humour and musicianship meld impressively in a style that’s predicated in his relaxed stoner efforts, and his band are certainly no faceless automatons.

Ghoultown have a country flair combined with songs that draw heavily from the horror genre. They could easily have been the house band for one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and they get a huge reaction from a clearly dedicated and packed audience for their undead yee-haw monster mash.

Glenn Hughes: a dazzling performance

Glenn Hughes: a dazzling performance

The incessant rain ensures that Reef are just for the diehards, and although bassist Jack Bessant’s ‘crazy wildman of the woods’ look is slightly off-putting, their Top 10 hit Place Your Hands incites much gyration; ditto another of their best-known songs, Yer Old – mightily appropriate in these surroundings.

Over on the Grooverider stage, Iceland’s foremost classic rock youths The Vintage Caravan aren’t about to be deterred by a bit of rain. Okay, a lot of rain. “Fuck the rain!” bassist Alexander Örn Númason cries gleefully as the trio groove, shimmy and strut through one of the weekend’s most infectiously enthused sets.

If the notion of a Finnish bluegrass covers band seems daft, then Steve ’N’ Seagulls make it appear like the most natural style in the world. Opening with Maiden’s The Trooper, they fiddle their way through a set that also includes GN’R’s You Could Be Mine and Metallica’s Seek And Destroy. Enjoyable hoedown hokum.

A late-afternoon performance from Glenn Hughes dazzles just like those high-vis pearly gnashers. At almost 65, the Voice Of Rock has no right to look nor sound this good, and despite pockets of vocal showboating, those usual excesses are reeled in. A mix of solo tracks and standards from Purple, Hughes-Thrall and Black Country Communion wraps with a formidable romp through Burn.

Dokken’s almost comically threadbare attempt at Don’t Close Your Eyes, The Hunter and Kiss Of Death are rendered all the more tragic in the wake of Hughes’ masterclass. After just a handful of numbers, Classic Rock has to walk away. Everything in life has a sell-by date. For Don Dokken’s voice, on this evidence, it appears that point is long gone.

Dan Baird & Homemade Sin have the huge disadvantage of being without Baird himself, who is in hospital. But the remaining Sinners pull together with admirable professionalism. Guitarist Warner E Hodges steps up to the plate and leads the band with humour and class. It also helps that everyone in the Outlaw Country tent is on their side, willing the trio to triumph over adversity. They do.

Following a recent tour on which they performed a solitary Thin Lizzy song, would Black Star Riders buckle under the pressure of satisfying a festival crowd – especially one soaked to the skin? The answer is ‘yes’, though besides The Boys Are Back In Town, only Whiskey In The Jar is wheeled back out to complete a set of rousing, melodic, twin-guitar anthems born of varying degrees of Irish parentage.

Grooverider headliners Rival Sons have spent much of the last year or two opening for rock royalty (first Deep Purple, then Black Sabbath), and it shows – in a really good way. Well versed in winning over audiences that aren’t solely theirs, they’re bang on the money, from the rock’n’soul swagger of Hollow Bones through to uproarious closer Keep On Swinging. Beloved ballad Jordan is sublime, the boot-stomping likes of Torture are rich and more-ish, and Jay Buchanan holds the stage with an easy, confident presence. And guitarist Scott Holiday – all twirly moustache, sharp suit and fearsome Firebird chops – is just effortlessly cool.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is sensational. You can argue that he channels the blues a lot more than country, but who cares about this sort of definition? The fact is that his set is reminiscent of classic-era Mahogany Rush – it’s virtuosity mixed with joy. Songs like Deja Voodoo are charismatic jaw-droppers, and the climactic version of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is one of the weekend’s standouts.

Extreme make a very good start, of that there’s no doubt. However, their set is overlong and lacks depth of quality. Any band that closes with Queen’s We Are The Champions had better be very special indeed, but Extreme are merely ordinary and there really is no legitimate reason for them to top the bill at an event like this. Of course, potential headliners are dropping like flies, but this was an exercise in wishful thinking.

Saxon: a set that drips with quality

Saxon: a set that drips with quality
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Sunday

On the Rising Stage a year ago, Stone Broken are perhaps a little too close to Nickelback or Black Stone Cherry, but making rapid improvements in all areas. The signs look very good.

A decent crowd gathers for Jack J Hutchinson, and their slide guitar-laced Boom Boom Brotherhood stands out, though for a so-called power trio, it all seems just a wee bit too casual.

Russians iamthemorning are baroque pop prog with a very downbeat lyrical slant on life. “We write songs about death, suffering and pain,” deadpans infectious vocalist Marjana Semkina. The result is moody and moving. At times reminiscent of Kate Bush, the band have a beautifully dark aptitude.

From the frailty of Leaf And Stream to The King Will Come and its stirring bravura, Wishbone Ash’s Argus remains an enduring piece of music, and although the bassist’s voice sometimes croaks in its upper register, Martin Turner and his band replicate it lovingly – save for dropping Monty Python’s The Lumberjack Song into Warrior.

Having eased into their first beers of the day with Snakecharmer (a decent, if slightly beige melodic rock hybrid of ex-Wishbone Ash, Whitesnake and Thunder members), the main stage crowd is more than ready for Blues Pills and their Summer Of Love-via-2017 tones. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come since their nervous first UK gigs, with Elin Larsson commanding the crowd with soul-queen howls and beaming, hair-throwing charisma. All of a sudden they feel like a bigger band all round.

Big Boy Bloater & The Limits have a style that swings and an off-kilter sense of humour. The result is hugely entertaining, and the packed tent shows an appreciation for this bright and flowing 30-minute set.

Monster Truck already have an enviable reputation, and they build on it with an all-out assault here. It’s reminiscent of Raging Slab mixed with Grand Funk, and the Canadians show they have a modern edge on skilfully elaborate songs like She’s A Witch and For The Sun. Expect massive strides towards major status imminently.

Ending with Sylvia and Hocus Pocus, veteran Dutch proggers Focus offer a bizarre yet appealing mix of skit-scat vocals, yodelling, jaunty flute solos and jazz-rock tempos, pounded out on a Hammond organ that looks like it’s held together with duct tape. Wonderfully quaint.

Aaron Keylock still has a long way to go before he fulfils his obvious potential. The guitar work is already at a high level, but his vocals are barely decent, while the songwriting is a little naive. That may explain why there isn’t a large crowd for his set.

Graham Bonnett (right): in fine voice

Graham Bonnett (right): in fine voice
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Nashville scamps Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown are steeped in blues rock, but there’s a mischievous, almost punk streak in their frontman. No wonder they were picked to open for Guns N’ Roses. And today’s Blues Stage set is a proper team effort, right from the deliciously harmonised oomph of Weak & Weeping through to the blues-with-balls likes of Muddy Waters cover Got My Mojo Workin’. Super.

If anything at RMF rams home the fact that we are seeing many of our favourite bands in their last days, it’s Magnum. Watching Bob Catley trying to sing is painful. He wants it so badly, and you will him to do so, but he just can’t. They still make wonderful records but perhaps the time has come to retire from the road or they’ll tarnish their legacy.

Almost unknown in the UK so far, Supersonic Blues Machine are a revelation. They mix mid-70s southern rock with funk and soul in a brew that catches the attention. And guitarist Eric Gales adds extra zest during a brief guest appearance. The highlight is a spectacular cover of the evergreen Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City. Momentous.

Ever reliable for a good knees-up, The Quireboys are the musical equivalent of your mate who persuades you to stay out for “just one more”. Arriving today with a set of Quireboys-ified blues classics (which will be released as part of new album White Trash Blues), Spike and co. offer the heartiest, booziest takes on the likes of John Lee Hooker we’ve heard in ages. Much fun is had by all.

While peers stumble, flag or fall, UFO continue to deliver. Those ultra-conservative set-lists are still an issue, but Phil Mogg retains an unmistakable voice, baiting an unspecified friend performing on another stage – Spike from The Quireboys, presumably – for the fact that his own band attracts “more women”. The one-liners are just as important as Doctor Doctor and Rock Bottom.

As the sun sets on the Prog stage, Devin Townsend (brought in to replace original headliners Kansas) marks a shift from the flutes and fiddly time signatures one may have expected. The crowd is small and tentative at first, but grows into a delighted mass as Townsend and co. thrash out the soaring, new-age-meets-angry-metal likes of Rejoice, Stormbending and Supercrush. “How many people here are over forty? I bet there’s lots of us!” he booms, in one of many self-aware, stand-up comedy blasts of banter. A true original, and the only performer to combine penis jokes with melancholy gems like Deadhead.

The Blues Stage tent is packed and there are hundreds outside trying to peer in as Joanne Shaw Taylor strides into action. She’s not phased at all by such attention – Taylor is now a consummate performer, not only a more than capable guitarist, but also a growing vocalist. The band lock into her musical needs, making this a tight and punchy set.

ZZ Top’s experience headlining festivals is obvious as they stride smoothly into Got Me Under Pressure, followed swiftly by Waitin’ For The Bus, Jesus Just Left Chicago and Gimme All Your Lovin’. It’s an opening salvo that sets the tone for a performance that glides through the trio’s vast catalogue. They mix their own masterpieces – from Cheap Sunglasses to Sharp Dressed Man and Legs – with covers including Foxey Lady and Sixteen Tons, and the retro first encore of La Grange and Tush is followed by a return for Jailhouse Rock. It’s all supremely timed by a supreme trio.

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While peers stumble, flag or fall, UFO continue to deliver

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