Sometimes it’s important to remain optimistic when things aren’t going well and there were occasions during Friday and Saturday when D: Ream’s 1990’s hit, “Things can only get better” kept going through my head. Fortunately, Ramblin’ Man Fair was a weekend where things did “get better.”
Leaving Oxford mid-afternoon on Friday I didn’t expect to be sat on the M25 in traffic congestion almost six hours later. Having baulked at £49 per head camping fees I’d opted for an offsite option, although this still left £40 in parking costs for the weekend, making Ramblin’ Man probably the most expensive festival for extras that I’ve encountered. By the time that Friday headliners Saxon were winding up their set I’d just finished pitching my tent eight miles away. Then the rain began . . . and it continued incessantly throughout the night.
Saturday morning brought brief respite and bright skies but it didn’t last. Walking into Mote Park I was greeted by loud explosions and gunfire. No this wasn’t a pyrotechnic finale of an over indulgent band, or a terrorist attack; Union and Confederate soldiers fired their cannon and shot each other as we witnessed the re-enactment of the first Battle of Bull Run from 1861. It proved an entertaining addition to the festival bill and guess what; combatants were all revived and fought the second Battle of Bull Run on Sunday! As the last of the Confederates will killed off, rain returned and it rained and rained and rained . . .
Determined fans braved the elements while the bar adjacent to the Grooverider stage proved a great viewpoint for that stage. Meanwhile, The Outlaw Country Stage (Ramblin’ Man’s only tented venue) was rammed throughout the day regardless of whether bands were playing. For your reviewer / photographer, keeping camera gear dry became a real priority, venturing out to shoot bands and then returning to “refreshment” tents to dry equipment.
Musically, first to impress on Saturday were German duo, The Picturebooks; best described as a more brutal White Stripes. On the main stage Reef delivered an enjoyable if workmanlike set and Glenn Hughes drew a large and enthusiastic crowd, playing a wide range of material covering varied periods of his distinguished career. Thin Lizzy inspired Black Star Riders have great stage presence and some impressive material but after 30 minutes I was drawn away by probably the worse set clash of the day. Playing the Grooverider stage were Rival Sons. Their soulful blues rock reminiscent of Free was without doubt one of the highlights of the weekend.
Extreme may not have been an obvious choice of headliner and to be honest I only knew a few of their songs. That said, they really impressed; very professional and with great stage presence yet clearly enthused by headlining, one couldn’t doubt their musicianship. Nuno Bettencourt certainly lived up to his reputation as a great rock guitarist. Their set concluded with personal favourite, "Decadence Dance" although I could have done without Queen’s, “We are the Champions” in their encore.
Sunday rang the changes as Outlaw Country was transformed to become The Blues Stage and The Grooverider Stage became Prog in the Park. I approached the day with some trepidation, fearful of how much toll the weather had taken yet my fears were unfounded. Apart from a small area near to the main stage the whole site was mud free. In the early afternoon sunshine it was clear that Mote Park was a beautiful spacious location and it was still green; having coped remarkably well with the deluge of rain it had received during Friday night and Saturday.
The day heralded other changes too. It was soon obvious that there were far more people in attendance. Being a rock festival, tee shirts were much in evidence and perhaps unsurprisingly, many proclaimed their allegiance to ZZ Top. On Saturday there was little to choose in terms of musical style between the two main stages but Sunday saw clear differentiation. On the Planet Rock Stage there was an undoubted blues influence while Prog in the Park brought a number of “heritage” bands who’s heyday had been in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Maybe the weather helped but Sunday afternoon’s Prog acts generated a great atmosphere. Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash, Focus and Magnum all enjoyed large enthusiastic audiences with thousands sat in the sunshine, many on deckchairs equipped with beer glass receptacles. This was an afternoon to sit in the sun with a beer and wallow in nostalgia as both Focus and Martin Turner produced musically faultless sets while clearly enjoying themselves and appreciating the adulation of the large receptive crowd.
On the main stage, young British Band Stone Broken proved impressive openers with their power chords and big choruses. Judging by the queue at the signing tent later, they had undoubtedly impressed many. I guess that Blues Pills musical learnings speak for themselves but there was also a soulful element to the Swedish band and special mention must go to vocalist Elin Larsson. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her with her insatiable mix of a great voice, flailing blonde hair and seemingly boundless energy. Supersonic Blues Machine continued the blues theme with some great musicianship but for some reason played to probably the smallest main stage crowd of the weekend.
Surprise highlight of the weekend was definitely Devin Townsend headlining the Prog Stage. Although familiar with some of his music I was totally unprepared for the live experience. This was an exceptionally powerful live band with a charismatic front man full of biting self-deprecation and humour who seemed to have a penchant for collecting objects from the crowd; finishing the set clutching a giant inflatable penis which had been slowly moving toward the stage as the performance progressed. It was such a pity that so many of the audience appeared to have migrated to the main stage to watch UFO before he started.
ZZ Top brought the festival to a close on a real high with an excellent performance that sent everyone home smiling. They delivered songs spanning almost 50 years, ranging from 1970’s classics like "La Grange" and "Tush" to tracks from their most recent album "La Futura". They even managed humour while making the clichéd moves that accompanied the 1980’s Eliminator videos look cool. The current tour has also seen the inclusion of a number of covers, ranging from an excellent version of Hendrix’s "Foxy Lady" to the more questionable "Jailhouse Rock" as a final encore although even this worked its magic.
Ramblin’ Man boasted the usual festival fare of clothing, jewellery and massage but for those seeking something a little different, festival goers could watch daredevil motorcyclists career around a wall of death or even purchase a Harley Davidson! Bars were plentiful with one devoted to craft ales while for the more discerning drinkers there were specialist outlets for whiskey and rum. Eating opportunities were less exotic than at some events although ostrich was on the menu. However, all of the more traditional fare sampled was excellent and there was a complete absence of edible waste around the site, a sure sign that others too were enjoying their food.
Overall, Ramblin’ Man was a really enjoyable event with a great laid back atmosphere. Everything ran to schedule and there were some impressive performances. On a weekend when some events struggled or succumbed to the weather and organisation crumbled, Ramblin Man not only coped but thrived. This is how a festival should be run. It was a real pleasure.
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