Our last blast from this year’s Celtic Connections.
Blabber’n’Smoke is happy to stand on anyone’s coffee table in our scuffed boots to proclaim that Ross Wilson, AKA Blue Rose Code, is one of the most exciting acts to have emerged from the Scottish diaspora in the past few years. He simply is the best writer and performer about; having seen him in several guises (solo, small band, big band) he is a mesmerising performer while his songs are a continuation of all that was good about such luminaries as Van Morrison, John Martyn and Jackie Leven. Committed as we were to reviewing some Celtic Connection shows for Americana UK including this one we’re grateful to David Ferguson who sent us his review of what was a tremendous night.
Blue Rose Code is the pseudonym of singer-songwriter, Ross Wilson, a native of Edinburgh and currently based in Bournemouth. 2015 was a particularly notable year for Blue Rose Code, including as it did a SAY Award nomination (Scottish Album of the Year) for The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, a series of successful tours, a number of sparkling performances on radio and television, lavish praise from celebrated broadcasters Ricky Ross, Roddy Hart and Edith Bowman, recognition from Ross Wilson’s beloved Hibernian Football Club and the acquisition of a celebrity fan in Ewan McGregor. The start of 2016 saw yet another ‘first’ for Blue Rose Code, in the shape of his first-ever headline gig at Celtic Connections, on 29th January in the elegant Mitchell Theatre. This special event had been arranged to enable Blue Rose Code to preview his forthcoming third album, …And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing and to give fans the only opportunity to buy copies of the eagerly-awaited album prior to its general release in March.
Ross Wilson’s versatility is such that he is equally at home performing intimate solo gigs, as a trio or with a small band but, with up to eleven musicians on stage at any one time, this special gig was most definitely a case of “Blue Rose Code – max”. The line-up varied throughout the show, according to the arrangements and dynamics of each song. Ross Wilson revelled in the role of band leader, bringing the best out of the accompanying musicians and drawing great inspiration from them in return.
Ross’s customary beard was reduced, on this occasion, to a rather splendid pair of mutton-chop sideburns, all the better for the audience to witness his ever-widening smile as they roared their appreciation at the end of every single song. There was a richness and variety to the ten songs which make up the new album, yet they fitted together beautifully as a coherent whole. The set opened with an abridged version of the awe-inspiring gospel song, Grateful, featuring a quietly impassioned vocal from Ross Wilson, embellished by Angus Lyon’s elegant piano and feathery counterpoint vocals from Eliza Wren Payne. The majestic My Heart, The Sun featured pulsating rhythms, smoothly rippling trumpet and an anthemic chorus. The carefree swagger of Rebecca, a gentle country blues, gave way to one of the most achingly beautiful, tender and gracious break-up songs you will ever hear in Pokesdown Waltz, whose gently-whispered closing line surely brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in the room (”…the only regret that presides is that I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye…”). Ross Wilson then quipped that the next song, Glasgow Rain, would bring an end to “divorce corner” for the evening! This song was cinematic in scope, bringing a deeply soulful vocal from Ross (“…the rain fell like dominoes along Great Western Road….”) and a masterclass in cool and sweet jazz from the formidable combined talents of Colin Steele (trumpet), Nico Bruce (double bass), John Lowrie (drums) and Angus Lyon (piano).
In The Morning, Parts 1 and 2 was an extended tour de force, which started with the breezy country soul of part one and segued dreamily into the mesmerising ebb and flow of part two. The fragile beauty of Love, a perennial fans’ favourite which has finally made it onto an album, was notable for Ross’s ethereal vocal and delicate washes of cello, violin and trumpet. The free-flowing Favourite Boy was performed solo by Ross, with the rhythms provided by playful piano chords and foot-taps. In The Morning, Part 3 saw Ross’s vocals build gradually from pastoral lilt to passionate exhortation and featured an exquisite violin solo from Lauren MacColl and stunning ensemble playing from the full “caledonian soul orchestra”. At various points in the show, added musical textures and colours were provided by Graham Coe’s expressive cello and Signy Jakobsdottir’s bewildering array of percussion instruments and effects.
The main set came full circle to finish with an extended and intensified take on Grateful, with uplifting gospel choruses courtesy of Eliza Wren Payne and Emily Kelly, quicksilver blues guitar licks from “Wild” Lyle Watt and a series of beautifully-constructed and increasingly fiery trumpet solos from Colin Steele. There was still time to run through a couple of older favourites, including Edina, Ross Wilson’s affectionate and bittersweet tribute to his native city, which included another gorgeous violin solo. Sandaig was a quietly stirring and poetic evocation of the landscapes enjoyed by Ross during a memorable weekend spent in the Knoydart peninsula. As a final treat, and as this gig coincided with the seventh anniversary of John Martyn’s death, Ross Wilson paid a touching tribute to one of his musical heroes with a beautifully-judged cover of Fine Lines.
It was a sheer delight to hear the songs on the new Blue Rose Code album played in sequence, underlining the cohesion and uniform brilliance of this collection of songs. Having successfully come through several challenging periods in his life, Ross Wilson has attained a serenity which is reflected in the mellowness, elegance and grace of his songs and the warmth, assurance, charisma and inspiration which characterise his live performances. Ross Wilson’s instantly-recognisable brand of Caledonian Soul has reached a new level with this outstanding third album, which promises to elevate him to his rightful place among the elite of British singer-songwriters.