Ransom Notes


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While the cassette culture and D.I.Y. movements of the '80s certainly brought some idiosyncratic artists out of the woodwork, basement studios, or wherever, it all registers as a light splash compared to the veritable tsunami of creativity resulting from artists "burning" their own compact discs. The evidence of this effect is a mountain, to mix metaphors, but Ransom Notes is a pretty convincing example if only one stone is to be examined. There is a humorous story about parents who tell kidnappers to keep their child because he is such a brat; a quick sample of this distinctly Southern musical blend, and listeners who enjoy R&B will opt to simply hang on to the Ransom Notes. This is an example of a name being used by both a band and an individual. In fact, the only consistent factor throughout these tracks, besides overlapping sidemen, is the individual who calls himself Ransom Notes. It is assumed that any group he leads becomes the Ransom Notes band. Documentation of these enterprises on CD seems to have begun with the 13-track Anthology. Followed back through the metamorphosis of his performing name, Ransom Notes has been an obscure, intriguing presence in the Southern United States, particularly North Carolina, going back to the mid-'70s. Back then, audiences on various regional scenes may have experienced a performer named "Billy Hobbs," who was just as likely to sally forth as a one-man band as appear on-stage with an actual combo. Eventually he began using the name "Billy Ransom," or was sometimes known as just plain "Ransom" or "Hobo," the latter nickname a bit descriptive of his lifestyle. Thus, Ransom Notes seems to have simultaneously developed as both a bandname and an individual alias over several decades. There was not much in the way of recorded documentation released during these years, yet this performer was consistently active as a soloist and bandleader. He could be found on-stage at a club on the coast of North Carolina, busking on the streets of New Orleans, raising hell at a private party for serious freaks in Jamaica, or attempting to wake up the crowd at the legendary annual Appalachian blow-out known as "The Boogie." The appearance of Ransom Notes on CD means listeners who don't get invited to these sort of events will have a chance to experience a unique, sometimes quite moving take on musical tradition. Those frightened by home-burned productions, with packaging ranging from ultra-relaxed to ridiculous, may want to steer completely clear, however. Forget packaging, this particular CD showed up without any whatsoever, just a disc with Ransom Notes scrawled across it in magic marker. It wouldn't be out of hand to imagine this artist may have concocted some kind of fairy dust to protect the sensitive discs, or maybe he is just so eccentric he believes in the original indestructible hype revolving around the digital format when it was first introduced. Either way, Anthology provides an entertaining overview not only of the Ransom Notes sound, but of some of the musicians who have been involved in the North Carolina R&B scene since the '70s. This includes players such as guitarists Sam Frazier and Scott Manring, excellent tenor saxophonist Glenn Ingram, and drummer Cliff Greason. Two generations of the Kelly family are represented as well -- drummer Ezra Kelly is the son of bassist and engineer Bobby Kelly, whose brother Pat Kelly also plays guitar on some of these tracks. In part, the material is what could be expected in a set list from a North Carolina bar that features this type of music. That means covers of Chicago blues songs such as "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover," and "Who Do You Love?" as well as material with a New Orleans flavor, such as Professor Longhair's "Cry to Me." Ransom's originals, including "Fetching Witch" and the brilliant "Swampus," are the type of songs that are so firm in their traditional credibility that they also sound like cover versions of obscure vintage recordings. The grasp of tradition, as sure as a carpenter wielding a hammer, is what separates these performances from typical bar band fare. Ransom has a wonderful voice which can be plaintive as well as forceful, bringing an intensity to the material that can be unforgettable. His keyboard style compliments this nicely, aspects of his approach bringing to mind Thelonious Monk as well as blues and boogie woogie pianists. Ransom's one-man band style, part of the tradition of hokum that goes back at least as far as the '20s and the Memphis jug bands, does not get so much space in this Anthology but will hopefully be the focus of another CD -- maybe that one will come with a cover.

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