Vic Smith in fRoots #337, July 2011
Sometimes you can hear a sort of musical magic developing. Even when you have known the people involved for some you become aware that a particular combination of musicians is producing something special and we need to look at the qualities that make them stand out. After all, it seems that there are very many young British bands looking at American material from the first half of the 20th century and interpreting it in their own way. What is it that makes the Long Hill Ramblers unique?
Well, they are not one of the ubiquitous "Old Timey meets Skiffle" bands that are prevalent at the moment; jolly stuff but very little of it memorable or of any lasting quality. And "Quality" is the strongest impression that I take away from seeing two of the band's earliest gigs. Having heard Laura Hockenhull's singing in the years since she came to Sussex, I have been aware of how rapidly this has developed. Her confidence and control have grown steadily but now, hearing her in a band context rather than singing unaccompanied, there has been a quantum leap in the impression she makes; she is becoming a mesmeric performer that makes a glorious sound and she seems to be totally at ease in the context of this band. Not that the others are slouches in that department particularly with their four part harmonies with the newest member adding a strong bass part. Then there's the instrumentation; the classic combination for the genre – fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo played with the level of skill and subtlety that would be difficult to match.
In the interview, the various members all speak in their various ways about the band's wish to augment the melodic beauty of their material. Tab says "I've always sought to play a more lyrical rather than rhythmic bass line" whilst Ben states, "I've become interested in finding a fiddle line that is really involved with the melody finds a good way of harmonising. I feel that I'm bringing something from all the different fiddle music that I've played Irish, Swedish, English, as well as my dad's music– not just following a standard Old Timey line."
Mention of Ben's illustrious father, the iconic Tom Paley brings us to brief biographies and how they came together. As well as that immense paternal influence there was the wonderful Appalachian style singer of his mother, Claudia and then there's his step-father, Ron Gould, a prominent figure from the skiffle era and a kind of walking encyclopaedia of roots music and jazz. Ron filled the house with wide range of excellent music, both recorded and from many distinguished visitors. Ben's career has seen him playing in a range of prominent groups, the longest running of these must be with his father and Joe Locker in The New Deal String Band, though he has played with guitarist Tab Hunter off and on – mostly on – since he came to Brighton in the late 1980's. A notable early combination saw the two of them play in The Wild Turkey Brothers. In the early 1990s their punk-tinged bluegrass with attitude gained them a cult status in Sussex, the support band of choice for visiting roots bands. At a number of British bluegrass festivals they divided opinion; Ben remembers, "With some people we went down very well though others thought us... er... heretical!"
It was through another of Ben's many musical associates, Sara Grey and Kieron Means that he met Laura and realised that her dad, Mike had been the person who recorded the album by The Expatriate Game, a trio of Ben with Duck Baker and Maggie Boyle. In the past their fathers had played together. The other side of Laura's family is her mother, Helen, of The New Victory Band, Muckram Wakes and Grace Notes fame.
The others agree that that their music took a great leap forward when, about six months ago, the extraordinary musicality of Dan Stewart was added to the band. He is another with musical parents, this time with folk and classical backgrounds. Dan's banjo and mandolin playing is a delight and show both deep understanding of traditional music and a fine inventiveness within it. It is no surprise that he was asked to join this band or that he is already in demand as a member of another exceptional trio, Rattle On The Stovepipe with Pete Cooper and Dave Arthur. He also plays in a band with the man who taught him banjo, Barry Murphy in The Old Faded Glory String Band.
Listening to the way the banjo, guitar and fiddle play their tunes, you can certainly hear that all three have played extensively for dancing, Dan with his sister Laura in Sussex Rampion, Ben with the long-running Sussex Pistols and Tab organising a large number of musicians in pick-up bands.
An album? "We don't have any concrete plans for recording an album we think we should do it fairly soon." With their broad approach, excellent musicianship, a lovely lead voice and strong four part harmony singing, it should not be long before they are making a major impact.