The first annual Ramblin’ Man Fair was held last weekend at Mote Park in Maidstone, Kent. I came over from San Francisco to see the band Camel, who performed on day one of the two-day event, 25 July 2015. The festival was well run, and a success on many levels, with two main stages: one for rock & metal bands, and a smaller one for the purveyors of progressive rock. I took the trip all the way “across the pond” to see Camel with Jeff, my college roommate, as we have been lifelong fans of the group and had first seen them together on the Breathless tour, at the Roxy theater in Los Angeles way back in 1979. As hoped, Camel put in a strong performance, focusing on the 1975 recording, Moonmadness and fan favorites from the rest of their early catalog.
Camel returned to the stage two years ago, performing a slightly revised version of their brilliant concept album The Snow Goose (1975). My wife Artina and I attended this show at the Barbican Theater and felt fortunate to finally see the band out again after that long break, which came due to a rare illness suffered by founding guitarist Andrew Latimer. For that show the group featured keyboard player Guy LeBlanc who passed away just this last April, and was replaced for this tour by Ton Scherpenzeel, a founding member of Dutch band Kayak, who has been active with Camel since 1984. Returning members included the multi-talented Jason Hart (keys, acoustic guitar, vocals), Denis Clement (drums) and long-tenured favorite Colin Bass (bass, vocals). This was another stellar lineup for this long enduring band.
The show opened with “Never Let Go,” a staple from their first album, followed by “The White Rider” from Mirage (1974). Then commenced five of the seven songs from Moonmadness, most notably the one-two punch of “Air Born” and “Lunar Sea” along with “Uneven Song” from Rain Dances (1977), “Drafted” from the concept album Nude (1981) and the stunning and beautiful set closer “Ice” from I Can See Your House From Here (1979). In particular the instrumentals “Lunar Sea” and “Ice” highlight Latimer’s abilities as one of Britain’s most talented guitarists. He shows a rare restraint, like contemporaries Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, wringing powerful emotion from every note, never crowding the measure. On top of this, Latimer sings and plays flute, and these skills were also on display, as he traded leads and harmonies with Colin (who makes everything he does look easy, paired with Denis on drums) and shared solos with keyboard wizard Ton, who was in great form. After the long form encore “Lady Fantasy” the band were rushed offstage, seeming to be surprised at the shorter time they were allotted. Prior nights on this brief tour included a three track set from Dust and Dreams (1991) a keyboard instrumental, and “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller, (1984), one of our favorites, none of which they were able to play. The rush seemed unnecessary; the stage time allotted to the comparatively pedestrian Scorpions would have fit Camel’s entire set list. It was not an arrangement befitting one of Britain’s most talented musical outfits. Nonetheless Camel delivered during a truncated 80 minute set and made the trip spectacular for the two of us.
And there was more to see during the long Saturday afternoon and evening. The lineup of bands on the prog stage that day included Unto Us, Touchstone, Messenger, Pendragon, Haken, Anathema and headliners Camel. On the main stage it was No Hot Ashes, Toseland, FM, Blue Oyster Cult, Saxon, Dream Theater, and The Scorpions. The only act we really wanted to see on the main stage was American band Blue Oyster Cult who did not disappoint, with killer hits like “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Godzilla” alongside deeper cuts that showed off their blues-rock chops.
We spent more of the day at the Prog stage, with Haken in particular hitting all their marks. This band featured inventive, structured tunes like “Cockroach King” that brought to mind the best aspects of Gentle Giant with madrigal vocals and deft instrumental interplay. They closed with the 20-minute long-form song “Crystallized” which featured lots of tightly composed counterpoint and dramatic musicianship. This is a worthy band that just signed to the Yes event Cruise To The Edge. Anathema followed and did their fans right with their brand of melodic prog.
As to the fair in general, the event was well organized and not over-crowded, so lines for bathrooms, and the many varieties of food & drink were short, and there was plenty of space to stand or sit during the performances. Management, vendors and service personnel were upbeat, professional and courteous. On Saturday we lucked into a mostly sunny day in beautiful Mote park.
On balance musically, the fair catered more to the heavy metal and hard rock crowd, as fans of that music attended in greater numbers, and those bands took a much larger stage than their prog brethren. Additional smaller stages played host to “Outlaw Country” and blues acts. No doubt that imbalance was due in part to the main event being a rare U.K. appearance by American country and blues rock legend Greg Allman. But I came away feeling a bit let down by this, and had not expected that here in the birthplace of progressive rock, the disparity between these related genres would be so large. It seemed a bit of whiplash; to my left was the brawn and bravado (“rock you like a hurricane”), and to the right, virtuosity and nuance (“daydreams and sunbeams”). Too much Yin for my Yang, and more leather than lace! While we did have a great time, I’m not sure the event founders will be able to entice me back next year, as nice as the fair was, and I know now to lean towards dedicated classic rock, alternative/indie or prog festivals. Next stop for a fest will be the Yes voyage Cruise To The Edge in November.
p.s. Special thanks this week to Matt and Steve Knight, who provided many of the photos herein!