In the absence of the much missed High Voltage Festival the UK festival scene has been screaming for a high profile outdoor festival which specializes in the worlds of classic rock and progressive rock. On a glorious, sunny Saturday the gates open to the sport park in Maidstone, Kent, revealing everything we rock fans need, namely great names and booze. The main and Prog stages sit either side of the site, as well as a beer festival bar and a third stage that will host both Country & Western today and Blues tomorrow. Welcome to the inaugural Ramblin’ Man Fair!
Touchstone hold a very special place in the hearts of their fans. So it comes as no surprise that they amass one of the biggest crowds of the day. With their last ever shows looming, it’s no wonder that as the first bars of ‘Wintercoast’ burst through the speakers, the crowd are completely immersed in the five piece. Kim Seviour’s vocals are on magnificent form, and it is clear that the reaction of the crowd means a lot to her and the rest of the band. Their encore is their renowned cover of Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’ for which they are accompanied by John Mitchell on guitar. The prog world will be very sorry to see them go.
Things take a psychedelic turn as prog upstarts Messenger prove that age doesn’t mean a damn thing. Having already supported the likes of Devin Townsend it is clear that we can expect great things from them. Unfortunately the vastness of the field locale seems to overwhelm their folk tinted melodies, and many an interest is lost. That being said, it is an impressive set, which only hints at things to come.
Your scribe’s first visit to the main stage sees Blue Oyster Cult prove why they are one of rock’s most underrated gems. Arriving to the Game Of Thrones theme tune, BOC put on a master-class performance, which shows both experience and, perhaps, a surprising level of energy. Donald Roesar, Eric Bloom and Kasim Sultan prowl the stage and exude charisma, backed by a sterling set of anthems including a monstrous (pun entirely intended) ‘Godzilla’. Sadly a large portion of the crowd leave once THAT song is played, but this doesn’t take away from a sterling set which proves that these legends are so much more than a one song band.
British Prog heroes Haken are soaring right now, garnering plaudits a plenty and following a very well received EP release, and today’s performance shows signs of just why, if with some inconsistencies. Beginning with the short and shaper ‘Premonition’ from Visions (Lasers Edge) and The Mountain’s (InsideOut) ‘In Memoriam’ , they kick the Prog dial up with 3 long players closing the set. An unusually mixed set sadly sees a flat performance of breakthrough song ‘The Cockroach King’ which seems to lack its urgency and power. A stunning rendition of ‘Crystallised’ following on however certainly makes amends as the set closer.
There cannot be a rock and metal festival goer on the planet now who hasn’t seen legends Saxon at some stage now, seemingly an ever present each year, and with performances like this it’s a bloody good job too. Offering very few surprises, their set is loaded with the familiar classics that everyone knows and loves to rapturous response from the gathered masses. Biff Byford gives an engaging and genuine display as ever as he commands his troops through classic anthems like ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ and the timeless ‘Wheels Of Steel’, barking that they will play until they are booted off the stage. No such set cutting occurs however as they close the set with a rousing ‘Denim And Leather’, further cementing their reputation as one of metal’s most beloved acts.
Up on the main stage, prog maestros Dream Theater are going through the motions. Sadly despite their flawless, CD-perfect performance it feels as though they’re lacking personality. There is a sense of love ‘em and leave ‘em about this performance, and with the exception of Jordan Rudess the band looked as though this was a 9-5 job. Even the heart-wrenching ‘The Spirit Carries On’ falls flat emotionally, and the bombastic ‘Burning My Soul’ feels forced and perfunctory. The humdrum nature of closer ‘Behind the Veil’ bookends what has been a worrying glimpse into the bands future.
The last few years have seen Anathema rise from underground heroes to one of prog’s most celebrated entities, showcased as second to headliners to icons Camel. Renowned for their knack to bring grown men to tears, today they give a set full of some more energetic numbers but still with that trademark emotion and serenity. After a low key but building start to ‘Anathema’, things kick up a gear into ‘Untouchables Part 1’ before a raucous ‘Thin Air’ gives momentum. The splendor of the vocal harmonies really shows on ‘The Lost Song Part 3’, showing Lee Douglas’ growing ever more confident performance after performance; particularly so when she leads on the beautiful ‘The Lightning Song’. Closing with a harder and more energised rendition of ‘Distant Satellites’ than on record, they show just how versatile they are. Yes it may be songs that they have aired countless times in the last few years, but they are played as stunningly as ever.
The level of adoration for Camel the prog community has is unrivaled, and with good reason. Since their incarnation back in 1971, Andy Latimer and his brethren have produced some of the most iconic albums both inside and outside progressive music. It is a privilege to be amongst the crowd tonight, and as ‘Never Let Go’ begins proceedings, it is clear that their form has not floundered. Latimer is on his finest form yet; both his guitar work and vocals are flawless. Each song is met with elated cheers and fervent applause, with song like ‘Spirit of the Water’ flowing seamlessly into ‘Air Born’. Noise bleed from the Scorpions set does punctuate some of the quieter segments, but Latimer is undeterred proving that Camel are the real headliners of a glorious first day in Maidstone.
With the pull of the returning Camel on the Prog Stage, the crowd for German legends Scorpions is not quite as rammed as perhaps expected, and the huge delay does not help shake the underwhelming feeling. When they finally do take to the stage its to a somewhat flat and uninspiring rendition of ‘Going Out With A Bang’, at this point a seemingly ironic statement. Fortunately proceedings pick up with the sterling ‘Make It Real’ and ‘The Zoo’, as guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs and drummer James Kottak show tonnes of energy and Cheshire cat grins.
For the most part this is an immensely enjoyable set that balances classics such as ‘Wind Of Change’ and ‘Big City Nights’ with stellar tracks off the new album Return To Forever (Sony) like the monumental ‘We Built This House’ which sounds right at home with the anthems. But inconsistency sets in with a couple of moments that don’t hit the mark: for example the momentum killing acoustic segment. Inconsistencies aside this is a thoroughly enjoyable set, and as they close with favourite’“Rock You Like A Hurricane’ they affirm their legendary status with a great, if not perfect, close to day one.
WORDS: CHRIS TIPPELL & SARAH WORSLEY