If there is one artist who epitomizes the eclectic ambitions of 1320Radio then it’s that son of Edina, Ross Wilson and his adopted Blue Rose Code persona. His songs are as different from one another as the seasons, and the settings are untroubled by rude categorization. On his current UK tour, he’s decided to reveal the highly mutable streak in his assertively the non-generic nature of his music.
Early in the show at the Norie-Miller Studio within Perth Concert Hall, he shares an anecdote about having to come up with some countrified ideas ahead of last year’s BBC trip to Nashville. Expressing his surprise at the various slots commentators have tried to squeeze him into, he opts to describe his music as “Scottish as heart disease”. That is certainly true, but it’s outward-looking too, and generous in the way it acknowledges disparate influences and hands them back in attractive new shapes and colours.
Nevertheless, it’s still a wonderful surprise to hear so many songs from North Ten and The Ballads of Peckham Rye given over so fearlessly to radical re-invention. Wilson is not content to simply speed ‘em up and slow ‘em down for the sake of novelty, he’s actively re-imagining his own songs. It helps to be surrounded by top class musicians who seem able to anticipate his every spontaneous thought, but it’s Wilson’s remarkable intuition that allows these transformations to take place. It also speaks to the inherent strength of the songs that they bend to his will so readily yet retain the character and soul that bring his following out in ever-increasing numbers.
Some of the most pronounced makeovers are applied to Norman McCaig’s True Ways of Knowing from his “poetry section”, and a stripped down, naked version of Ghosts of Leith. Wilson is more than just comfortable setting the lyrics of Scotland’s great poets to his music. It’s something he’s built to do, and proved time and time again in the imagery of songs like Skin and Bone, Whitechapel and The Light of You.
Wilson has an impressive array of devices in his vocal instrumentation, including softness of breath, clear enunciation, powerful delivery and emotion enough to drown lesser men. Then there is the “Wilson Roar”, a kind of off-mic, one man Hampden reverberation that used to be borne of frustration, but is now a great deal more celebratory. However, in one of his finest moments, the duty of care he attaches to McDairmid’s sonnet to Alba brings out his most sensitive singing. His setting of Scotland is as delicate as the flowers of May and as uncompromisingly truthful as the poet himself.
His many returning fans are obviously thrilled with a set crammed with one great confessional ode to self-discovery and enlightenment after another, but the evening opened with new songs that suggest a very clear view of future horizons. Musically, we should be prepared for Blue Rose Code to be a highly polished vehicle for Wilson’s classy song writing. On this particular night, added shine was provided by Lyle Watt on guitar, whose wonderful interplay with Wilson delighted them both almost as much as it did the audience. It seems that the band that smiles together plays together, and Graham Coe on cello alongside Nico Bruce on upright bass spent a lot of time exchanging wide grins. Punctuation as precise as theirs can be very pleasing and, it’s little wonder that the happiness spread out into the room.
This incarnation of Blue Rose Code brought a fresh dynamic and energy to songs that less ambitious artists would be content simply to shuffle around on stage. It’s this ambition to always serve the songs better that underlines Ross Wilson’s growing reputation as one of the Scotland’s finest exports. He carries pride in his roots quietly and with good grace. More importantly, he offers Scotland true ways of knowing itself with the storyteller’s art of illuminating the Caledonian soul against an ever-changing light.
Michael S. Clark