Blue Rose Code. And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing

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The third instalment of Ross Wilson’s testament to the glories of life and living, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is a magnificent listen; a collection of songs with a beating heart, flurries of melodies with Wilson’s voice an instrument in itself. There is hurt and heartbreak, emotions that give the album some of its most affecting moments, but above all there’s a sense of celebration, a celebration of just being alive, of seizing the moment. The album title (from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), a reminder that life is fleeting so be grateful for each day. Wilson and his cast of supremely talented musicians have crafted an album that dips and soars like a murmuration of starlings offering the listener a myriad of delights.

There’s an organic flow to the album, the songs almost weeping into each other, the opening glimpse of the majestic single, Grateful, here in an abridged state, setting out Wilson’s agenda. Thereafter it’s a thrilling ride through folk and jazz tinged celebrations and wallows, the sinewy bass note that opens the free flowing box of memories that is Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails returning later on the free form closing moments of In The Morning Parts 1 & 2, a nod perhaps to one of Wilson’s heroes John Martyn and his experimentation on songs such as Bless The Weather. In The Morning returns in the guise of Part 3 as the closing song here, this time with Colin Steele’s trumpet leading into Wilson’s closing remarks which are blessed with harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, the Gospel troupe who raised Grateful from the great to the magnificent. There’s a thread here. Musically it’s Wilson’s debt to Martyn and Van Morrison (and if anything there are moments here which recall Veedon Fleece) while lyrically Wilson takes us from his first moments of recovery into his marital breakup and his current sense of purpose.

The billowing breeze of Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails leads into the confessional My Heart, The Sun, a false dawn of hope, the gentle pummel of percussion and lonely trumpet harbingers of what is to come. Rebecca is a spritely love song with some fine guitar work from Wild Watt Wyatt, a respite of sorts as Wilson then heads into the brokedown palace of Pokesdown Waltz, his naked exploration of his marriage ending, a song that bursts with regret, the words so emotive, the delivery stunning. Steele’s lonesome trumpet and Danny Thompson’s burbling bass introduce the centrepiece of the album, Glasgow Rain, an impressionistic journey though the West End as desolate as watching rivulets of rain running down a window as a storm lashes around you. Here Wilson unleashes his love of jazz and experimental music, trumpet, double bass and piano delicately tracing his voice before swelling into a mild cacophony as John Lowrie’s scattered percussion and Lauren MacColl’s violin join in, a ghostly spoken part here delivered by actor, Ewan McGregor. The music then gradually subsiding into rain swept sound effects with a final farewell from the bass and piano washed away like chalk on a pavement. A song of misery and self loathing with Wilson pleading “I try and I try and I try but I told you darling, I’m no good” it’s elevated into a thing of beauty as his voice trembles and pleads, the repetition and phrasing recalling Van Morrison on classics such as Listen To The Lion and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights. Aside from Morrison the song recalls the work of Robert Wyatt and his collaborations with Michael Mantler and Carla Bley while its rain swept Glasgow vista will also beg comparisons to The Blue Nile.

It’s truly a testament to the wonder of this album that even after the emotional blitz and sonic adventure of Glasgow Rain the listener can be transfixed by the following songs. In The Morning Parts 1 & 2 returns to the spritely breeze of Brave Cedars and Rebecca, the band skipping along with a refreshing spring in their step as Wilson and Wrenne and The McCrary Sisters celebrate a new dawn, the words uplifting as Wilson describes a rebirth of sorts. It’s a joyous song and as it heads towards its dissolution in a welter of bowed bass, skittering keyboards and gliding pedal steel, the vocals just peeking through, there’s an undeniable sense of willing Wilson on,  urging him to carry on and cast his demons aside. The following track, Love, alleviates this concern as he delivers a most tender and affecting paean to Cupid’s arrow, the mournful, almost brass band opening giving way to a song that most recalls the late John Martyn with Wilson sounding at his most vulnerable. The chorus with Wrenne wrapping herself around Wilson’s voice like a bountiful siren is just gorgeous, the band’s playing hypnotic, a song to savour. Favourite Boy is an almost playful aside, a Harry Nilsson like ballad balancing shadow and light, hopeful for the future but with a sense of gloom ever present. Again The McCrary’s are on hand to enhance the song. The curtain draws with the closing In The Morning Part 3, Steele’s trumpet coolly recalling the likes of Miles Davis before Wilson looks to the future over a lonesome picked guitar, the band gradually joining in, fiddle to the fore and The McCrary’s back in the fold for the blossoming swell at the end. The words here, as throughout the album are poetic and inspiring, indeed, had we quoted some of the gems from the album this review would be twice as long. Suffice to say that Wilson here sings, My best days they still lie before me, a sentiment that his very dedicated following will surely subscribe to.

And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is an album of import, a personal statement from Ross Wilson which is suffused with a humanity and grace that one generally attributes to a great novelist. Wilson is a rare animal these days, his music vibrates with a life-force sadly missing in much of the music offered to us. On stage he has an uncanny ability to draw an audience into his world, an Odyssey of loss and redemption and the album does capture that. A definite contender here for album of the year.

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Blue Rose Code @Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre, Friday 29th January

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.

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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.

David Ferguson

Blue Rose Code. Grateful EP.

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We’ve been eagerly awaiting the new album from Blue Rose Code and this week a taster was unveiled in the shape of a four song EP, Grateful, in anticipation of And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing which will be released in January with a launch show at Celtic Connections. Following on from the acclaimed The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, Grateful is further evidence of Ross Wilson’s magisterial song writing while the performances are simply stunning.

The title song is a sumptuous slow-paced celebration of life with Wilson crooning in best John Martyn style over stately piano and keening pedal steel, his voice superbly buttressed by the graceful presence of Gospel singers, The McCrary Sisters. It weeps and exults equally and bodes well for the new album. A video of the song has been released comprising snippets sent to Wilson by fans who were asked to record their reasons for being grateful: it’s quite moving.

Midnight’s Mass In Suffolk’s Breast has a Christmas theme and its spritely pace with no sleigh bells in sight is reason enough to welcome it but again Wilson comes up with a winner. The jazz tinged folk verses recall Robert Kirby’s arrangements for Nick Drake especially on the piano playing while the chorus soars with celebration. My Heart, The Sun is a remix by James Yuill (who remixed Blue Rose Code’s Whitechapel some years ago), its throbbing beat and synthed sounds showcasing Wilson’s eclectic tastes while his words remain poetic. The EP closes with a magnificent performance of In The Morning recorded live for Radio Scotland’s Roddy Hart show. Playing as a six piece with piano, cello, drums, double bass and guitars the piece billows gently along on a perfect breeze of Celtic folk, it ripples and eddies wonderfully and captures well the live Blue Rose Code experience.

A fine taster then for the forthcoming album, the EP is available here and Blue Rose Code are launching it with shows in London and Glasgow on the 2nd and 3rd of December. All tour dates are here

 

Blue Rose Code/M. G. Boulter/Wrenne. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Wednesday 1st October.

Blabber’n’Smoke has to admit that it’s a bit of a latecomer to the music of Blue Rose Code, the vehicle for Edinburgh born Ross Wilson’s song poetry. A chance hearing of Boscombe Armistice on Celtic Music FM a few weeks ago stopped us in our tracks as this winsome pedal steel laced gem wafted from the speakers and Wilson’s Scots burr crooned about his granny saying he’d start a fight in an empty hoose. I suppose we’re much more used to hearing Scottish accents in songs these days with The Proclaimers leading the way while you wouldn’t contemplate King Creosote or Aidan Moffat adopting a transatlantic drawl. But there was more here, the song conjured up memories of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and even Astral Weeks with its haunting quality and impressionistic feel. In these instant internet days the album The Ballads of Peckham Rye was almost immediately summoned up and pretty much floored me. A magnificent trawl from Leith to London with side trips to the corner of the northern isles to the peak of the antipodes the album is a psychogeographic trip as Wilson summons up a mystic Celtic hinterland finely balanced by a couthy Scottishness that would be familiar to readers of The Broons. As for the music it inhabits that folk/jazz hybrid that Morrison invented on Astral Weeks along with nods to Jackie Leven and John Martyn, helped indeed by having the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass duties.
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The Ballads Of Peckham Rye came out on CD a few months ago but this week was given a vinyl release and in tandem with this Wilson assembled a road troupe for a short tour. The show at The Glad Cafe was packed to the rafters and accordingly blisteringly hot, however the audience stalwarts were rewarded with a show that surely rates as one of the best of the year. A mini revue almost, both support acts were plucked from the Blue Rose Code line up with Wilson introducing them. First up was Wrenne, a singer he first encountered “playing a nylon strung guitar, barefoot, at a Secret Garden Party.” Singing songs from her forthcoming album along with a cover of Steven Merrit’s The Book Of Love her voice impressed, an opinion confirmed later as she sang some magnificent harmonies in the main set. Next up was M. G. Boulter, pedal steel gunslinger for the likes of Simone Felice when he’s in town. Boulter’s pedal steel graces The Ballads of Peckam Rye but he’s also a solo artist and a member of Southend’s The Lucky Strikes. His acoustic set saw him in a line of succession from Loudon Wainwright III and Alan Hull, bare boned songs that have a bleak yet hopeful outlook. Descriptive of Southend On Sea, chip shops, ice cream men (and their demise) featured but his best was the wonderful and evocative Once I Was from his fine album, The Water Or The Wave.

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The stage was well set then for Blue Rose Code, tonight a five piece with Wilson at the front, Boulter on pedal steel and Dobro and Wrenne on harmony vocals along with Nico Bruce on double bass and Lyle Watt playing acoustic guitar and mandolin. From the off it was obvious that this was going to be something special. Rippling guitars introduced Silent Drums before Bruce’s bass burbled into action sucking the audience into the slipstream. Wrenne’s vocals slipped and slid around Wilson, recalling that other vocal duo Birds Of Chicago, as the band gently billowed like a fine wind pushing the ship forward with Lyle Watt’s guitar embroidering the sound. Wilson took us on a journey that went back to his childhood with Ghosts Of Leith via Edina up to his London travails on Whitechapel (where he slipped in a Drumchapel to some applause). Come The Springtime was described as a hope for the future and comes across as a magnificent update to what one might imagine to be a traditional Scots song. Norman McCaig’s poem, True Ways Of Knowing was acknowledged by Wilson as an example of his late flowering into the highways and byways of Scottish literature and it’s an excellent example of written poetry set to music, a feat repeated later in the encore.

Introducing Matthew Boulter earlier Wilson declared that he had always wanted some pedal steel on his records but later said that he was reluctant to participate in the Americana Music Awards as he “wasn’t country.” The Right To Be Happy was his attempt to write a country song and tonight it swung with a fine country heft while several other songs certainly cantered into a country trot. The Hibernian folk swing persisted through the night and culminated in the first encore with Wilson and Wrenne delivering a powerful rendition of Hugh McDiarmid’s poem Scotland. Finally the band came out to perform the excellent This Is Not A Love Song which allowed them to stretch out and improvise, recalling Soho folk blues such as Pentangle in their heyday although Wilson brought it back to earth with his couthy declaration ” time after time it’s the same old shite,” a wonderful mishmash of folk purity and Scottish bare faced cheek. Overall the impression was of a magnificent warm and enveloping wit and humanity with Wilson and his players producing the finest night of the year so far.