For those who grew up in Kent, Maidstone’s Mote Park is likely to hold childhood memories of family picnics and feeding ducks. It seems almost inconceivable that very same park in the middle of an incredibly residential area, albeit many years later, would play host to a variety of superb rock bands. On the evening of Saturday 25th July, classic rock legends Scorpions are the headliners at the very first Ramblin’ Man Fair, but they’ve also got sterling support from NWOBHM legends Saxon, among others.
It’s about 2:30 PM and largely unknown rockers Toseland are warming up the audience nicely. They have a great frontman who isn’t short of confidence and has a strong voice. The material – straddling a classic rock format with a sturdy melodic rock bent – is just what the afternoon requires as the warm sun beats down. The crowd seem enthusiastic. The far more experienced FM come across as weaker by direct comparison, since despite some great material and a strong fan following, their set is hampered by a few sound problems, including a keyboard that’s far too low in the mix – a keyboard that’s absolutely essential to a few of their chosen numbers. Even so, newer material from ‘Heroes & Villains’ sits well alongside well-worn cuts like ‘Tough It Out’ and the crowd, gaining in number, are appreciative. A little later, Blue Oyster Cult go down very well with their fan base but don’t always seem to be winning over the more casual listener…until the appearance of mammoth hit ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’. Despite their more mixed bag approach to live performance, it’s a great set – centering around a ferocious ‘Buck’s Boogie’ – and they should have been allowed more stage time.
It’s now about 5:30 and the sun is positively blinding in its position behind the stage. Various stage elements are being tested and there’s a feeling that things are about to get rather more raucous. Saxon are about to make an entrance…and it’s not the first time they’ve appeared on the same stage as Scorpions – both bands were present at the inaugural Monsters of Rock Festival in 1980 – a festival that very much set the precedent for days like today. With the stage filled with beams of blue light and sirens, various figures rush onto the stage and Saxon frontman Biff Byford bellows across the PA system in his usual direct style: “Ramblin’ fookin’ Man!” Saxon have truly arrived – and in more than the literal sense. No less than ten years ago, they possibly wouldn’t have scored a place so high on a UK festival main stage, for this was a band – although legendary in metal circles due to their place in history – who’d fallen somewhat out of fashion after the 80s. Due to the resurgence of British rock, a couple of genuinely superb records not far behind them [2011’s ‘Call To Arms’ and 2013’s ‘Sacrifice’] and their strongest ever line-up, Saxon find themselves back on top. …And judging by the huge crowds that have gathered within the last ten minutes, people are more than glad to see them as true champions of British metal once more.
Tearing into ‘Motorcycle Man’, the band and audience explode – it’s quickly obvious that Saxon are absolutely thrilled to be at this event and also obvious that they’ve picked up a fair few new fans over the past five years or so. The guitar interplay between Doug Scarratt and founding member Paul Quinn captures everything that continues to thrill when it comes to classic, old style metal. Cranking up the heaviness for a storming version of ‘Sacrifice’ – the set’s only nod to the present – it’s clear that Biff is in great voice too, sounding far better than he had at the Steelhouse Festival on the previous tour. The title tracks from ‘Power and The Glory’ and ‘Strong Arm of the Law’ represent two superb albums from the 80s and during the latter, huge pockets of people in the front are soaking up every moment and punching the air vigorously.
‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ represents pretty much everything Saxon have ever stood for and the combination of chugging riffs and air jets from the stage really adds excitement to the afternoon. Watching Saxon at this point, they achieve what every mid afternoon or early evening festival band should – they’ve brought sing-along choruses and boundless energy and swept up almost everyone in the process. Biff talks about the band’s formative years and British metal before the band play a great version of ‘The Bands Played On’, a song about that very first Monsters of Rock. It may celebrate an event that, at this point, is thirty five years gone, but on the big stage on the first day of a brand new festival, it comes across with both buoyancy and total relevance, as does the more melodic ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’, a well received rock classic.
Stopping for another chat, Biff asks the audience what they want to hear, knowing he’ll get one of four or five responses – all of which are likely on the setlist…which he’s just eaten. “It’s your show now!”, he quips before ‘Princess of the Night’ kicks off, sounding every bit as good as it did on the ‘Eagle Has Landed’ live LP back in ’82. Again bigging up the British qualities of Saxon’s brand of metal, Biff suggests they’re now “gonna play until they drag us off…it’s our stage! It’s our country!” He then backtracks a little, knowing that he might have misjudged that last comment. He needs to tread very carefully with the British schtick: anyone who’s smart will know that when Biff says British, he means British in the multi-cultural sense, that we’re all in this together, that it’s what we make it. His comments are in danger of being misconstrued; what he doesn’t need is to attract the attention of racists and other right wing idiots who have a habit of taking this kind of patriotism the wrong way – Saxon do not need that kind of support.
Moving on, the all too short set closes – rather expectedly – with ‘Wheels of Steel’ and the anthemic ‘Denim & Leather’, both of which require audience participation. The band play hard, the audience get to tear out their lungs, everyone’s happy. It’s clear straight away that Saxon should have been given a longer set – even been moved up the bill to play directly before Scorpions, so appropriate to the occasion is their brand of crowd pleasing rock. Their kind of energy and flamboyance is exactly what’s needed…especially before an hour of soulless mechanics from Dream Theater.
And as Biff and the lads leave the stage, the audience, too, vote with their feet and most of them have left before Dream Theater appear, leaving the transatlantic progressive metal band playing to a more than half empty field…