For Over The Hill’s inaugural festival you couldn’t hope for a more bucolic setting than Cogges Manor Farm. Set in the outskirts of Witney in Oxfordshire, its grounds comprise a beautiful manor house made of Cotswold stone, surrounded by common land and with farmyard animals in situ. The festival is simply but elegantly accommodated in two tithe barns, with the musical turns alternating between the two stages.
Kicking off the festival at 1pm, Ags Connolly was a most appropriate opening act, hailing as he does from Finstock, where he first set out on his musical career, just a few miles north of Witney. His presence on the “Austin” stage was also apposite given the amount of time he’s spent over there, a place that has proven the inspiration for much of his material. Performing songs from his two albums and road-testing new material from his forthcoming release, ‘Wrong Again’, including songs such as ‘The Meaning of the Word, ‘Just Pour and I’ll Say When’ along with the title track, there’s every suggestion that his new record is a continuation of the rich vein of form that’s seen this hardworking troubadour gain increasing numbers of plaudits and fans. He also had time, between re-tuning his guitar strings in the rather hot, muggy environment, to serenade us with his dedication to honky-tonks on ‘Haunts Like This’, a song very much for the times given the fate of our music venues. Ags might begin to wonder whether namechecking venues such as the sadly defunct Borderline and the Luminaire in his material is a wise move given the speed with which they’ve since closed.
He shared with his appreciative audience that it’s almost two years to the day since his father died and how much his old man would have enjoyed the Ashes test match which reached a scintillating conclusion the day before. If Sunday’s cricket had been about the one man show that was Ben Stokes, then Ags Connolly proved himself a different, but equally compelling form of entertainment.
In complete contrast were the Niall Kelly band, the first to appear in the neighbouring “Nashville” barn. A six-piece outfit, they performed a pleasantly sounding diverse blend of mid-tempo, folk, blues and roots numbers, including songs from Kelly’s latest album, ‘Promenade’, the addition of keys and fiddle making for a well-rounded sound that had a nod to the Hothouse Flowers and Paul Brady. Perfect early afternoon listening. Another six-piece combo were to feature on the same stage later in the afternoon as Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds extended their husband and wife duo to include the Ramshackle Band, providing a distinctive Appalachian feel in contrast to the Celtic-infused sounds of the Niall Kelly Band.
Following Niall Kelly on the Austin stage was a real highlight of the day in the form of The Black Feathers from Gloucestershire. It’s easy to see how the talented duo of Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler captivated singer-songwriter Hannah Aldridge so much that she invited them to participate in the recording of her ‘Live in Black and White’ album in London in July last year. A lengthy ten months of touring, six of which were spent in the United States, have honed them into a powerful unit, Sian’s voice swooping above Ray’s to electrifying effect. An interesting choice of a cover in the form of Portishead’s ‘Give Me the Reason’ was still topped by their self-penned ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’ on which the duo challenged each other to see who can hold the note the longest at the end of the song. It was a points decision for Sian with Ray vying to win the next rematch. Highly recommended.
Another musical duo were to follow in the early evening with Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou performing songs from their ‘Fair Lady London’ album. Something of a more downbeat, considered approach perhaps than The Black Feathers, but their more folksy harmonies still felt appropriate to the intimacy of the Over The Hill setting.
Having seen William the Conqueror no less than five times in the previous 18 months, including a winning set at the Mid Sussex Americana and Ale festival only two days previously, a late afternoon slot at Over the Hill proved that they’re quite simply the best three piece band touring the UK today. They got the crowd moving with the throbbing bass lines and propulsive beat of ‘Madness on the Line’ and never let up thereafter. Other highlights were ‘If You Would Be So Kind’ the rockier, Coldplay-like sounding dynamics of ‘Path of the Crow’ and the grungy workout of ‘Curse of Friends’ while ‘Tend to the Thorns’ is a genuine anthem – its mid section allowing Harry Harding to demonstrate his drumming prowess. The extent to which the band fed off the energy of the audience was palpable, with Ruarri Joseph looking more enthused than I can remember previously. And for a band who apparently chose a 4.15 slot, the measure of their success can perhaps be gauged by the fact that in spite of the early time they were still called back for two encores – the bluesy ‘Thank Me Later’ and its supercharged follow up ‘Looking for the Cure’.
It was going to be tough for the self titled ‘Rutland Troubadour’ to rival such a stellar performance but the warmth and confidence that Paul McClure brings to the stage means he’s always a compelling entertainer. Aside from the songs, his humorous asides and wry humour at the expense of fellow band members and family were on spot and while some of the other “local heroes” who sometimes feature, in the form of Joe Bennett, Jim Maving and Fin Kenny were not in attendance today, sterling backing support was still provided courtesy of the Tipping Brothers.
Topping the bill, Danny and the Champs were plagued somewhat with sound problems that led to a delay in the opening of their set by some 20 minutes. It meant that early, extended workouts on ‘Colonel and the King’ and ‘Gotta Get Things Right in My Life’ would probably have been better suited to a longer setlist, but by the time they’re into classics such as ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ and ‘Stay True’, any doubts about their suitability as headliners were suitably assuaged. And any set that closes with such life affirming stuff as ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’, ‘Clear Water’, and ‘Every Beat of My Heart’ will always leave smiles on the faces of any audience members.
A really nice touch was closing out the festival with Danny and the Champs encoring with the John Martyn song which has loaned its name to the festival, with lyric sheets for his ‘Over the Hill’ handed out so all could sing along. The intention of the Over the Hill Festival organisers, Glovebox, was to create an intimate and family friendly gathering of the best of what UK Americana and Roots has to offer. Given the already crowded nature of the festival market, they’re to be congratulated for not only selling out, but completely fulfilling their brief. Here’s hoping that Over the Hill lives to see a second year.