Blue Rose Code, M.G. Boulter, Wrenne – The Glad Cafe (Glasgow – Oct. 1, 2014)
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. 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. All this is helped indeed by having the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass duties.
The Ballads Of Peckham Rye came out on CD a few months ago, but this week was given a vinyl release. 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. Almost a mini revue, 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”, Wrenne’s 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. Descriptions 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.
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. 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. 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.
Originally posted on Blabber’n’Smoke