Ramblin’ Man Fair review: Bands from across the generations fly the flag for East Anglia

Bad Touch performing at Ramblin' Man Fair 2019. Picture: Adam Kennedy

Bad Touch performing at Ramblin' Man Fair 2019. Picture: Adam Kennedy - Credit: Adam Kennedy

While the attention of many music-lovers in East Anglia last weekend was focused on Latitude, a number of bands had left our region to head for Ramblin' Man Fair, which is fast becoming a fixture on the classic-rock circuit.

Little Red Kings performing at Ramblin' Man Fair 2019. Picture: Adam Aiken

Little Red Kings performing at Ramblin' Man Fair 2019. Picture: Adam Aiken - Credit: Adam Aiken

Friday night at Ramblin' Man Fair has been a hit of a hotchpotch in recent years, with an impression that it's been something of an afterthought.

This year, though, it feels more a bona-fide part of proceedings, and those who manage to get to Maidstone after work in time for the first night enjoy a good start to the weekend.

This is in no small part thanks to FM, who are fronted by King's Lynn-born Steve Overland. Black Magic sets the tone as an opener, and it's great that they find room for two tracks from last year's Atomic Generation album rather than simply mailing in a greatest hits set.

That said, the classics prove to be the icing on the cake. I Belong to the Night and, especially, Let Love Be the Leader are perfect slices of classic AOR, and the satisfying chord progressions during the chorus of Life Is a Highway always hit the spot.

It would have been good to have a longer set, but quality is always better than quantity and FM make an early claim for being one of the tightest bands of the weekend.

The Darkness. Picture: Kevin Nixon

The Darkness. Picture: Kevin Nixon - Credit: Kevin Nixon

The opening night is brought to a close by The Darkness. It's possible these Lowestoft lads will have a tougher time than others when it comes to impressing this crowd. With so many classic acts on the bill this weekend - Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Living Colour and so on - more than a few people have questioned whether The Darkness have sufficient pedigree to headline here.

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Not a bit of it. With a setlist dominated by 2003's breakthrough Permission to Land album, we get a tour de force of decent songs, great musicianship and a good sense of humour - frontman Justin Hawkins earning some genuine belly laughs with his on-stage banter.

From opener Black Shuck and its, ahem, risqué rhyming lyrics to Hawkins's blunt between-songs assessment of how people aren't buying records anymore, it's an hour and a half of a band not taking themselves too seriously.

It's all a bit silly, but that's their game and they do it well - and they bring much more than the one-trick pony of, say, Steel Panther's act.

There are only a couple of songs from their most recent album, Pinewood Smile, but one of them - Southern Trains - was always to going to go down particularly well in this part of the country. (It's actually Southeastern Trains rather than Southern who run services here in Maidstone, but the sentiments will have been well understood by anyone in the crowd who is struggling with the weekend rail replacement service helpfully being operated during this festival…)

There are special effects from the start and fireworks at the close, and Hawkins - who doesn't stand still all night - ends up in the crowd during the encore. He's still the closest thing we have to a present-day Freddie Mercury, and The Darkness have won everyone over way before the end of this set.

Norfolk's representatives are given the role of blowing away the cobwebs on Saturday. First up, it's Bad Touch, who play a midday acoustic set exclusively for those who have paid for VIP tickets.

Singer Stevie Westwood and his Dereham crew sum up everything that's good about Ramblin' Man - they were relative unknowns on the Rising Stage here a couple of years ago but have now progressed to being one of only a handful of acts booked for the VIP crowd this year.

Westwood tells us after the 25-minute performance that acoustic sets are rare for Bad Touch. "We've done it very, very rarely because we are less comfortable with it. We've always been at a level when we thought it was more faff than it was worth, but if we do an acoustic set it's good fun."

As well as the staples they usually play, such as 99%, there's a live debut of a new song, which is called Let Go. Or is it…?

"We don't really have a title for it yet - it's a work in progress," says Westwood. Either way, it slots perfectly into the set and is a great omen for the next batch of Bad Touch material.

Talking of which, there's more of that on the horizon. "We're recording later this year. It's all a bit vague at the moment but I think the album might be out sometime early next year," he says.

"It's going really, really well. I hope we'll be moving on to bigger and better things. I hope Ramblin' Man will have heard us today and we'll soon get the chance to be on one of the other stages."

Westwood is as much a fan as a musician, and he's a fixture in the crowd when there's live music on - he's regularly spotted wandering around, beer in hand, everywhere from the Download festival to the Horsey Beer Festival. Sure enough, later in the day, he's spotted out and about in the crowd, enjoying acts such as The Temperance Movement on the main stage, which is somewhere his own band could very well be in the near future…

A few minutes after Bad Touch's impressive acoustic set has finished, Raveneye - fronted by Norfolk-born Oli Brown - open the day on the main stage. This three-piece have been on the festival circuit for a few years now and are pros when it comes to this sort of thing.

They make more noise than it looks like they should, and this is another band that would justify a longer slot. Songs such as Breaking Out and Hey Hey Yeah are real audience-pleasers, while the crowd interaction - including by drummer Adam Breeze - and Brown's trademark solo whilst sitting on the shoulders of bassist Aaron Spiers all add to the spectacle.

Fans of East Anglian bands have one more treat in store this weekend. On Sunday, Little Red Kings, from Norwich, are on the Rising Stage - the place where Bad Touch made such a good impression in 2017.

This five-piece deliver a triumphant Ramblin' Man debut set. Frontman Jason Wick is backed by a tight-knit group, and when three of his colleagues (including guitarist Dougie Archer with his falsetto) chime in with backing vocals, the harmonies are brilliant.

Songs such as Josephine, Chaperone and No Friend of Mine deservedly go down very well, and Little Red Kings - who had to see off another 40 bands in a pre-festival contest in order to land this appearance - are the real deal.

They have a busy touring schedule locally, but it surely won't be long before they are another band who move on to bigger things.

Norfolk (and Suffolk) a musical backwater? No way. We've got some of the best bands around. This festival is the perfect showcase for them and they all deliver in style.

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