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Blue Rose Code

Venue: Acoustic Music Centre (Edinburgh Fringe)
Town: Edinburgh
Date: 13+14/08/16
Website: http://www.bluerosecose.com

Blue Rose Code is the creative guise of singer-songwriter, Ross Wilson, a native of Edinburgh and currently based in Bournemouth. The last two years have been particularly eventful and fruitful for Blue Rose Code, with the many highlights including a SAY Award nomination (Scottish Album of the Year) for "The Ballads Of Peckham Rye", a series of extensive and successful tours, a first-ever headline gig at Celtic Connections, 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 the shape of Ewan McGregor. The release of Blue Rose Code's third studio album, "…And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing", in March 2016, signalled a step-change in the development of Ross Wilson's unique brand of caledonian soul and the acclaim with which the album was greeted saw his stock rise even further.

Blue Rose Code made a welcome return to the Edinburgh Fringe on 13th August, selling out the Main Hall at the Acoustic Music Centre for the second year running. This prestigious occasion provided an opportunity for Ross Wilson to give his fans their first taste of a new musical direction, featuring folk-flavoured arrangements of a number of Blue Rose Code favourites plus Ross's interpretations of a range of traditional songs. Reflecting this new musical adventure, the Blue Rose Code line-up for the evening saw Ross Wilson accompanied by regular band-mates Wild Lyle Watt (guitar) and Angus Lyon (piano and accordion), plus two of the leading lights in Scottish contemporary folk music, in the shape of Jarlath Henderson (uilleann pipes, flute, whistles and vocals) and Ross Ainslie (pipes and whistles).

Humbly acknowledging the warmth and intensity of the audience's welcome, Ross Wilson played two solo songs before inviting the band on stage, kicking off with the gospel soul of "Grateful" ("…I'll never be cool, I'll never be good-looking, I'll never be rich, I know, but Lord I am grateful…"). Ross informed us that he had first been turned on to traditional music through listening to Karine Powart's seminal album "Fairest Floo'er" and so the first folk song of the evening was drawn from that album, Ross's graceful and heartfelt take on Robert Burns' "The Learig".

With the full band now assembled, Angus Lyon's elegant piano intro ushered in the extended tour de force that was "In The Morning, Parts 1, 2 and 3", which started with the breeziness of Part 1, segued dreamily into the tantalising ebb and flow of Part 2 and climaxed with the majesty of Part 3, in which Ross Wilson's vocals built gradually from a pastoral half-whisper to passionate exhortation and the band dazzled with their tight ensemble playing and sparkling solos. This was followed by the English traditional song "Spencer The Rover", covered famously by one of Ross's musical heroes, the late, great John Martyn, and dedicated here to their mutual friend, the legendary double bassist Danny Thompson. Ross's rousing and anthemic "Oh North" drew another fiery full-band performance, notable for sprightly flute and whistle from Jartlath Henderson and Ross Ainslie, respectively, and quicksilver guitar-picking by Wild Lyle Watt.

In his research into traditional music, Ross Wilson had been drawn in particular to the songs of Davy Steele from Prestonpans and three of that great man's songs were woven into the set. The stirring and poetic "Scotland Yet" was followed by a tender reading of "Long Hellos And Short Goodbyes" (with Ross accompanied solely by Angus on piano). There was also an outstanding a capella rendition of "The Ballad Of Jimy Steele", Davy Steele's epic tribute to his father, an East Lothian miner. Ross was given a wee hand by some audience participation in the moving choruses ("…coal minin', coal minin', my life's been coal minin'…).

At one point, Ross and Lyle took a breather to allow Jarlath Henderson and Ross Ainslie to display the full range of their virtuosity on uilleann pipes and pipes, respectively, with a breathtaking series of strathspeys and reels. As the tunes gradually increased in pace and intensity, Angus Lyon provided sterling piano accompaniment with some rhythmically pounding chords.

Ross Wilson's evocative, affectionate and bittersweet tribute to his native city, "Edina", was another highlight, lifted by Ross Ainslie's beautiful whistle playing. There was scarcely a dry eye in the hall by the time Ross had come to the gently-whispered ending of "Pokesdown Waltz", one of the most tender, gracious and moving break-up songs you'll ever hear. With a nod to Van Morrison, the band finished the main set with a trippy, extended and partly-improvised take on "Wild MountainThyme", with the musicians clearly having a blast. Exhilarating stuff, for sure, but it was a bit of a challenge for the audience to join in on the choruses! Due to time constraints, there was only time for one song during the encore, but Ross and the band pulled out all the stops with a scorching version of John Martyn's "Over The Hill", in which Ross and Jarlath shared the lead vocals to great effect and Jarlath and the other Ross shone once again on flute and whistle.

The audience reaction to this brilliant performance from Blue Rose Code provided a massive endorsement of Ross Wilson's new musical direction and evidence of his growing stature as a singer, songwriter and musician. Once again, he has made astute choices in surrounding himself with the kind of outstanding musicians from whom he can draw inspiration and we look forward to his next recorded work with great anticipation.

Having sold out the Main Hall gig at a fairly early stage, Blue Rose Code was delighted to take up the venue's invitation to return the following night to play a solo gig in the much smaller Back Room on 14th August. Given the restricted numbers, it was no surprise that this too was a sell-out, with many of Saturday night's audience returning on the Sunday for a second helping. Ross Wilson delivered fully on his promise to play songs requested online by his fans and a couple of the traditional songs from the night before.

Free from the pressure of the previous night's high-profile gig, Ross was very much at ease and at one with the audience in this intimate setting. He got the show underway with the breezy country swagger of "One Day At A Time", followed by the ethereal beauty of "Love". A spine-tingling "Grateful" was sung a capella, accompanied only by syncopated finger-snapping from the audience. Ross's appreciation of the songs of Davy Steele was marked with another graceful cover of "Scotland Yet". His musical imagining of Norman MacCaig's iconic poem, True Ways Of Knowing", sparkled and bubbled like the clearest of mountain streams. Following the spellbinding imagery and narrative of "From Wester Ross To Nova Scotia", Ross Wilson took to the piano for one of his newest songs, the delicate and moving "Nashville Blue". "Wild Mountain Thyme" was delivered in a more traditional fashion this time, allowing the audience to sing along free from confusion!

Ross Wilson tugged at the heart-strings once more with the achingly beautiful "Pokesdown Waltz" and, given the setting, the set finished appropriately with "Edina", the song which re-kindled Ross's love for the city of his birth. Already running over time, Ross was allowed one more song as an encore and delivered an old favourite, "Julie", with great gusto, which was matched by lusty audience sing-along on the closing choruses. The tangible heat which had built up in this fairly small room was unable to curb the enthusiasm of the audience, who cheered loud and long as Ross Wilson left the stage.

So, there we have it....two totally contrasting but equally stunning evenings of music, courtesy of one of Scotland's finest musical talents.

Blue Rose Code will play his biggest-ever headline gig at The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on 2nd December and tickets are already selling fast......

David Ferguson

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