The spirit of John Martyn loomed large on the stage of this inaugural festival as it soared towards a searing finale with a communal version of the latter’s popular tune, aptly named ‘Over the Hill’. Naming its festival in honour of one of this country’s finest roots artists was among many successful manoeuvres by the organisers. At the forefront of this was arranging for the hottest possible late August day to in effect bless the serene surroundings of Cogges Manor Farm in Witney, Oxfordshire. Obviously booking eight excellent homegrown acts to fill the pair of barn located stages played the premium part, with it proving a testimony to their lure and the pre-festival promotion that the sold out signs were raised with literally hours to spare. From the opening bars of Ags Connolly digging deep into his country soul to Dany and the Champions of the World playing their usual ‘best ever show’ vast riches were on display, especially for those glued to the near non-stop array of music from one in the afternoon to gone ten thirty on a balmy late summer’s evening.
Like most events tagged ‘Americana’ a diversity of styles reigned supreme, whether you took the artists at face value or their ability to mix ’n’ match mid set. Leading the more rock orientated sound, the Niall Kelly Band laid down a pair of kings at the end of their set, thus challenging the Champs to play the best possible hand to take home the uptempo honours. The sets may have been eight hours apart and compared only in the competitive mind of yours truly, but they scored highly on many points, only contrasting in cultured panache where the Northern Irishman and his talented team held sway over the more roots orientated rockers from London and other assorted southern parts.
Plying a more isolated path on the rock corridor was Ruarri Joseph and his increasingly acclaimed guitar fuelled trio William the Conqueror. Making use of the hour long set all acts on the American themed Nashville Stage were afforded, Joseph alongside his team of bassist Naomi Homes and Harry Harding on drums quickly found their rhythm and groove, a significant step for a band who rely strongly on these two attributes to provide a mantle for seriously emotive poetic outpourings. William the Conqueror is further expanding a festival presence in 2019 with the band set to feature next at the Long Road as part of their label’s (Loose Music) Saturday takeover. If they can hit their stride in this shorter slot as they successfully did at Over the Hill, then a wider audience in attendance are in for a treat.
Before returning to the hypothetical dual between Niall Kelly and Danny and the Champs, the fourth act to grace the larger Nashville Stage saw Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds expand their husband and wife duo format to a six-piece combo anointed as the Ramshackle Band. This was the only main stage act not to go down the electric route and thus a folkier sound emerged, in tune with the recent record, a positively reviewed collection of Appalachian songs. The front pair exposed their many years of performing experience to deliver an entertaining set, mixing original compositions with the archivist material. The family theme radiating from the stage was one frequently dealt as the day unfolded.
Niall Kelly was accompanied by his wife Caitlin on fiddle and frequently drew on an Irish brogue exuding wit between songs with his kids at the front sitting targets. This all added to the charm, with humour becoming a recurring theme later in the day. Ultimately the six-piece Niall Kelly Band rocketed to impressive heights as the set escalated. Blues, rock, rock ’n’ roll and some form of Americana were all celebrated in the set as the band excelled on many points especially a red hot keyboard player and a lead guitarist delivering some stunning licks when given the call. The name Van Morrison cropped up when mentioning that one of the great Northern Irishman’s band had played on the latest record PANDEMONIUM. It wasn’t too hard to detect where Niall Kelly gets a lot of his influence from.
Van Morrison is not a name you associate with Danny Wilson. In fact there are few if any comparisons laying at the feet of this incomparable South Londoner. It’s common knowledge that his Champions of the World operation is in the midst of a quiet period as the Bennett Wilson Poole moniker takes up a lot of the leader’s current time Indeed this Over the Hill appearance is set to be the band’s only festival performance in 2019. It’s also common knowledge that the band play a ‘greatest ever gig’ every time they hit the stage and Cogges Manor Farm in late August proved no exception. Opening with a post fifteen minute version of ‘Colonel and the King’ set things up nicely and Danny’s desire to fill the extended hour and half slot with so much music meant ‘any questions’ had a night off. Yes, the Champs were great, that’s a given, and those ‘in the know’ never stop building that proverbial rocket.
The Nashville Stage was only 50% of Over the Hill, although maybe slightly over as the four acts assigned to play the accompanying Austin Stage had a marginally less forty-five minute (though still ample) playing time to share their wares. As previously mentioned, Ags Connolly opened both this stage and the whole festival with a brand of country music deemed maverick only in contrast to the slide of the UK country music mainstream down an inauthentic path. 2019 seems to have seen Ags get a foothold into the Americana side of the wide reaching ‘country family’, not that this proud Oxfordshire native playing on home turf seemingly gives a hoot to what labels are banded around. He just does his own thing. 2019 has greater significance for Ags Connolly in that his brand new album will see the light of day later in the year. New songs are beginning to seep into the live sets and early promise suggests another fine record is about to head our way, while striking a balance that traditional country music can be relevant in today’s eclectic market.
To cement the ‘family’ theme embedded into Over the Hill, two further husband and wife duo acts graced the Austin Stage. In line with the comparative process of this review, sets by The Black Feathers and Hastings based duo Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou were lavishly savoured, while noting the contrasts with interest. If you wanted to draw a big thick Americana line between the duos, The Black Feathers reside on the southern side most recently exemplified in the song ‘3 Stars (and a Country Song)’, their latest single and on the day the climax moment of an impressive and enjoyable Over the Hill performance From earlier in the set, ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’ was a solid candidate for the best song heard on the day.
Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou are so far north on the Americana map that you could envisage them at the heart of folk revivalist New York City back in the early sixties. Whereas Sian and Ray harmonise a pair of voices with a single guitar in The Black Feathers, Trevor and Hannah go one step further with an additional guitar to achieve a similar level of unity. Both acts have an active past in touring America, with the latter duo detailing one adventure when opening for Tori Amos leading to a series of intriguing developments. Conclusively, both acts were astute additions to Over the Hill and represent our community so well in the harmony department.
Seven acts in the book with the one and only Paul McClure raising the stakes on the Austin Stage to complete the line up. In a parallel universe, the Rutland Troubadour would have hot footed it to Witney straight from a sold out stint at the Edinburgh Fringe. A dry satirical wit is as much part of his stage show as the catchy and well-constructed songs that bridge the gags. Both aspects of the live presence have been firm fixtures for several years and Over the Hill 2019 saw McClure on top form. Family was also on the agenda in more ways than one during this set. Wife and kids in the audience were the red rag for the wit, while Clubhouse twins Danny and Tristran Tipping adopted the apt tag The Local Heroes to play bass and assorted strings in support.
Over the Hill has been a long time in the planning for the Witney based Glovebox team and the endeavours had many rewards, best exemplified by a slick operation, the maximising of excellent sound in the barn environment and accruing full approval from those investing time, money and musical capacity on an often busy day of the year. A provocative question prior to the event was: is there room for another roots based Americana festival in a market prone to limitations? An Oxfordshire public plus a few travelling from more distant places resoundingly answered that question in the affirmative. Positive noises were heard about 2020 and maybe in twelve months time the lyrics to John Martyn’s ‘Over the Hill’ will be gustily sung in the main barn of Cogges Manor Farm at the end of another triumphant festival.