Live Reviews

Blue Rose Code – Tolbooth, Stirling: Live Review 

Blue Rose Code play two magnificent sets at the Tolbooth, Stirling, undertaking a musical journey from the early songs of North Ten to an incredible seven new unreleased songs.  

Riding on a wave of successful festival appearances and well-received concerts and a recent appearance on Radio Four’s Loose Ends, Blue Rose Code arrive at Stirling’s Tolbooth venue to play two sets. Blue Rose Code is the musical vehicle for Ross Wilson, one of the UK’s finest songwriters and live performers, who over the last ten years has recorded a series of exceptional albums, that combine evocative lyrics from the heart, and an ever-evolving musical palette, that has taken in influences from folk, jazz, country, and soul. 

The first set tonight is a complete run through of the debut Blue Rose Code album North Ten from 2013. The title of the album, as Ross shared, when we spoke after the show, had an interesting origin, “A lot of the writing came from a flat that I was living in, in Muswell Hill in London, and the post code is North Ten. But also, it’s that thing that mattered, geography too. So, I had come from the north, and it was ten songs”.

First Set – North Ten

Ross commences the set, by saying wryly to the audience, that for this set, they will be “Pretending be a folk group.” North Ten is perhaps the most folk based of the Blue Rose Code albums, and while honoring that history, the new musical arrangements for these songs are quite a revelation. They add new musical layers and fresh insight to these great songs, and also convey a sense of a linked body of work.

Whitechapel, the opening song from the album, begins with atmospheric cymbals and guitar, adding a progressive rock shimmer, a recurring musical theme throughout the set. The song then hits that wonderfully familiar skiffle like rhythm, with guitarist Lyle Watt, adding some stunning Hank Marvin influenced phrases. When Ross and the band hit the sudden mid song pause, as Ross sings “And this is where I’ll start….”, it is done with such precision it takes your breath away.

Ghosts Of Leith, in its new arrangement, conveys a sense of Ross looking back at the person that wrote the song, through a lens of where he is now. The song now has a joyous musical swing, with the words “I’m never, never coming home”, sounding kind and empathic to that younger writer. It reminded me of an interview I did with Ben Watt from Everything But The Girl, where he described his empathy for his younger self who wrote the songs on his first solo album, after starting to play some of the songs again.

Ross comments to the audience that he has not played many of these songs for a long time, as he moves on to play Julie and Skin & Bones. Julie features Lyle playing mandolin, and has a country feel, speeding up into a hoedown with the audience spontaneously clapping along. Skin & Bones begins quite beautifully, with a striking progressive music like ambient soundscape, full of coastal sounds. It features a lovely coda, where bassist Gus Stirrat plays some exquisite plunging bass lines, as the band are bathed in magenta and green lighting.  

Come the Springtime builds as a musical lament, gaining a gentle momentum from Lyle’s electric guitar and Ross’s acoustic guitar merging, bringing out fully the gentle romanticism that characterises this lovely song. (This Is Not a) Love Song, with its plea for authenticity in music, in contrast, has evolved into an incendiary rhythm and blues work out, where the band are obviously enjoying themselves. Stuart Brown’s drumming is so impressive here as he effortlessly leads the stop-start moments in the song. This live version has a quality of Bo Diddley’s musicianship and is a wholly magnificent interpretation of a great song.

Ross introduces From Wester Ross To Nova Scotia with the touching words, that he has moved nineteen times but has finally put down roots. This arresting song, with its theme of moving from home to seek a better life, is witness to a truly expressive and poignant vocal, where Ross travels vocally from gentle and quiet to soaring soulfulness. Like Wildfire is a marvellous example of the synchronicity between Ross and the other musicians, as he subtly conducts the band through the changes in pace in the song, providing an anchor for his voice to hit a real emotional intensity. 

Wanderlust in its new arrangement, has evolved into a soul classic with a heavy and funky backbeat, over which Lyle’s syncopated guitar melodies really fly. The Last Days of May, the final track on North Ten, brings the set to a gentle and wistful close. It gives full reign  to Lyle’s chiming and echoing guitar, so much a part of the Blue Rose Code sound

The set is a complete vindication of both the emotional power and the consummate musicality of these songs from ten years ago. It is also a testament to the unique quality that runs through the musical history of Blue Rose Code, which is Ross’s courage and vision to continue developing his songs with new and innovative arrangements that bring fresh insight and enjoyment.

In conversation with Ross, following the show, he spoke about playing the songs from North Ten.

“Ten years later I am finally getting to play them with a band that are just extraordinary. Which means that there is room for me to reinterpret, but also to improvise vocally, and it gives us more latitude because there is more of a synergy between me and the musicians. I like the way that we are doing it”.

“I feel like I am almost trauma bonded to those songs. They come from a different part of my life. They feel a lot older than ten years and there are some uncomfortable moments revisiting them, but once I started playing them it felt really good”. 

Second Set – New songs

The second set contains some familiar audience favourites, like the appealingly warm hearted (I Wish You) Peace In Your Heart, and Grateful, which tonight in the hands of Ross and this excellent band, becomes a striking soulful blues.

The set also astonishingly contains no less than seven unreleased songs. There are not many artists that would risk doing this in front of a live audience. It is a complete triumph, as Ross and the band totally beguile an appreciative Stirling audience, with new songs of such quality, and with musically so many interesting things going on. To give just one example, Don’t Be Afraid, is an incredibly moving song of redemption, where Stuart’s drum accents, Gus’s double bass, and Lyle’s guitar, flow around Ross’s voice, as it rises and fills the Tolbooth venue from the front rows right to the back. The way the band pick up the song to enable Ross to take flight vocally is very special indeed. 

Ross shared in our interview, a special moment playing the new songs. “There was one moment in one of the songs, Easy As We Go, where people just started spontaneously whooping like they were at a cèilidh and that’s never happened to me before. Long may that continue”.

An encore of the single, Thirteen Years, dedicated to the work of the Children 1st charity, ends the evening with a passionate protest against inequality and injustice. 

The audience reaction to both sets is to fill the Tolbooth, which Ross describes as, “…one of the jewels of the Scottish live circuit”, with deservedly sustained cheers and clapping. Earlier Ross had asked the audience, which of them had come along to see Blue Rose Code for the first time. There were a lot of hands in the air, evidence if it was needed, of the growing base of followers that Blue Rose Code are attracting.

In our conversation with Ross, following the Tolbooth show, he also looked forward to the things that are on the way for Blue Rose Code.

“We have got an album’s worth of material and I am planning to go into the studio very shortly, and then we are touring Australia, some US dates in spring, and then we have got a new album tour booked for April/May”.

Ross and Blue Rose Code are an authentic and insightful musical voice, who are providing songs that speak to the heart of human connection, allied with a musical depth that is both compelling and involving. Both on record and live they are an affirming and joyous experience, absolutely not to be missed. A great place to start, if you are beginning your journey with Blue Rose Code is the recent Ten Years Grace album, a superb collection of audience selected songs from across the last ten years, recorded with just Ross’s voice and acoustic guitar. 

Blue Rose Code by Stephen Norman Young

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