Picking up the Now Dig This Rockabilly Rave reviewer’s pen from the mighty Shaun Mather was always going to be a daunting prospect, especially for someone whose weekender is usually a succession of record-related shenanigans, and arriving at the beginning of the first Rave for three years made it clear that this was going to be a full-on weekend with a lot to try to capture. Fortunately, the challenge was made a lot easier by a high benchmark of live acts, which made sitting in various halls scribbling in a notebook a much easier task than I’d expected. Rather than compile full set lists of individual gigs, my aim was to see some of every act until we had to leave, and take the risk that if the drum kit caught fire in the bit I missed, someone would mention it.

Scorching weather and a crowd keen to make the most of their weekend saw a healthy throng on Thursday afternoon, trying to decide whether to drink, shop or just catch up with friends. Pausing only to conduct a couple of deals with our favourite vinyl pushers, we descended on the Queen Vic pub to immerse ourselves in Bill Smoker’s record collection before The Radio Ramblers kicked off the live performances with a set of classic four-piece rockabilly, tearing into ‘How Come It’ to mark the end of the Rave drought. I don’t know if it was the novelty of being able to be there on a Thursday, or the communal joy of being back at the Rave after so long, but this first set had all the buzz of a headline act at many events which set a high bar for the three days ahead.

Performances in the Main Ballroom opened with Marc and the Wild Ones from Germany, a four-piece line-up but with a heavy bass line and driving guitar riffs producing an authentic late 50s sound. Original compositions like ‘Travellin’ in straightforward rockabilly style were mixed with a varied selection of covers, including a very listenable ‘Where the Rio de Rosa Flows’ and ‘You Don’t Love Me’. Next up was the first of the weekend’s visitors from the US, guitarist Mitch Polzak, marking his UK debut from out on the floor before joining Deke Dickerson on bass and Bobby Trimble on drums for a blistering set of instrumentals, originals and covers. Mitch is the latest in a string of hugely talented US musicians who have the ability to pen and put across numbers that capture the authentic roots sound without pastiching the rockabilly idiom, and with titles like ‘Sleeping in the Dog House Now’ and a swampy ‘Big Mama’s Door’, he captured our attention. Guesting with him were Daniela Forte, a diminutive lady with a huge voice and, for a bluegrass banjo feature, two of the Truffle Valley Boys, putting the sound system to the test in capturing a novel line-up.

Closing the Thursday night live acts came Paul Ansell’s No 9, familiar to Rave audiences and striding straight into one of his signature covers ‘The Passenger’ and bravura take on the Elvis catalogue in ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’. Paul’s secret is his confidence and musical ability to range across several decades of popular songbook, adding an uptempo country twist to a contemporary number (for contemporary read anything after Bobby Kennedy was shot – this is the Rave after all), dropping back into a rockabilly standard, then taking off again into another genre, always totally sure that an experienced bunch of musicians will be all over it.

To Friday. Three-piece rockabilly bands are a staple of a Rave and the early Friday afternoon slot can sometimes be a bit of a struggle. Not so when that band is the Sundown Boys. They’re a band that just looks and sounds right – Dan Morley’s vocal has an authentic edge and the classic mix of his acoustic, Scott Brown’s lead guitar and Danny Brown’s bass comes together perfectly to evoke one of the better bands tucked away on a Bison Bop album. This is a band I could happily watch and listen to for a whole set – as obviously could a crowd who, despite the sweltering day, filled the downstairs hall. A mix of covers and originals, and several nods to the Radio Ramblers, gave the chance to showcase some nifty vocal harmonies before they encored on How Come It and Just Because – because the spirit of Elvis, Scotty and Bill is alive and well and this is a band who make playing authentic rockabilly look easy, and so prove just how hard it is.

Following a theme of young central UK bands, next up were Toto and the Raw Deals, recently formed with Salvatore ‘Toto’ Marziano on vocals/guitar, Sam French on bass and Joe Newbon on guitar and Tony Hillebrandt on drums. Tearing into covers of ‘Snatch It and Grab It’ and ‘Stutterin’ Cindy’ with energy, they wove in some witty originals in ‘This Here Rocker’s Gone Country’ and ‘I Wish I Was From Memphis’. It was when they launched into ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ it struck me – Toto‘s got the Bob Luman touch: good looks and stage presence, and the voice for rockabilly. Some excellent duelling lead guitar from him and Joe on Ronnie Dawson covers pointed up the rock solid backline with nicely understated drumming, resisting the temptation to dominate. As the reception from the young crowd emphasized, this is a band to watch.

Closing the afternoon session, and sitting nicely with the young bands, were the Spellcasters, a four-piece assembly of veteran performers from the Slingshots and Jack and the Real Deals who’ve come together to present a mixed set of originals and covers, ensuring no lull in the buzz in the lower hall at just the time folk should have been off having their tea. It’s fascinating to see how the same instruments and the same musical points of reference can produce a contrasting set in the hands of an experienced team with the air of those who’ve done their leaping around the stage and are content to let their musicianship speak for itself. The set list included some more unusual selections, from ‘I’m Snowed’, ‘Cuttin’ Out’, ‘Bitter Feelings’ and the prolific Baker Knight’s ‘Darlene’ before storming to a close on ‘Castin’ My Spell’.

First band of the evening were the Radions from Spain, a classic four-piece line-up smashing out a selection of original tunes and covers and who came over strongly, even when we had to catch the first half of their set courtesy of Rave TV while we grabbed some food. As we headed back out, having read the usual social media reports from those not present on how the Rockabilly Rave was short of rockabilly, so we encountered another three-piece outfit playing – pure rockabilly. From LA and featuring the ubiquitous Deke Dickerson, this time on drums, the Centuries yet again proved that you can blend covers and originals without forfeiting your rockabilly credentials. This neat outfit drove through their set with confidence and style, building on the Radions’ set in kicking the critical Friday evening session off with pure authentic sounds. If you don’t think the Rave is about rockabilly, I’m not sure what your definition of rockabilly if bands like the Centuries aren’t it.

If there’s any band that’s mastered the space where rockabilly and western swing meet, it’s Lynette Morgan and the Blackwater Valley Boys. Sharing vocals with scene veteran Pat Reyford and with a line-up including fiddle and steel guitar, the point where originals and covers met was indistinguishable, this is a band that exemplifies close study of a genre and the ability to reproduce it with complete conviction – if only we were in a genuine Midwest roadhouse and not the function room of a British holiday camp, the illusion would be complete. Closing up the Friday live acts were the Go Getters from Sweden. With prominent drums and bass (Sam French popping up again) for what I’d term the ‘heavy’ end of the rockabilly sound, opening numbers like ‘Red Hot Momma’ underlined a head-on attack on the genre with a no frills approach. An epic and marathon set, which vocalist Pete Sandberg would have kept going all night, ended on a cover of the Ramone’s ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and then – in complete change of mood – an acapella version of ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ – the Rave never ceases to surprise!

All photos from the lens of the amazing Tony Bruce who kept snapping for the whole weekend. This article first appeared in Now Dig This magazine.