When you hear another member of the audience say, “This was like Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra,” on the way out, and you don’t think it’s hyperbole, then you’ve been to a rather special show. Similarities with Morrison abound when one hears and sees Blue Rose Code, the band name for Ross Wilson’s endeavours. There’s the Celtic soul, the blend of folk, jazz and rock that infuses the music and then there’s Wilson’s voice. He doesn’t sound like Morrison but he has a similar way of rolling with the flow, almost scatting at times while his soft brogue has improved to the extent that he has recently been nominated Scots Singer of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards 2017
The Caledonia Soul Orchestra mention was appropriate as Wilson had gathered 13 fellow musicians on stage for this launch party of his latest album, The Water Of Leith. Presiding on acoustic guitar and vocals Wilson was accompanied by bass/double bass, electric guitar, pedal steel, piano and drums along with a string quartet, alto and tenor sax and trumpet. A fine ensemble who reassembled themselves several times over the course of the show allowing the intricacies of the album to shine through as they played it start to finish.
Wilson has collected some well kent followers. Ewan McGregor lent his voice to a song on …And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing while Ian Rankin has written the sleeve notes to the new album. His latest celebrity fan, veteran Scots music writer, Billy Sloan, introduced the band tonight. Candidly admitting he’d never heard of them until a few weeks ago when he caught them in concert, he was fulsome in his praise for his “new favourite band.” Introductions done, Wilson launched into a brief verse of Grateful, his signature song from last year with the strings joining in, before the mellow strains of Over The Fields (For John) commenced the play through of The Water Of Leith.
This deeply moving song set the scene perfectly, Wilson in fine voice, the band gently urging him on with pedal steel and whistle adding texture. Bluebell had a quicker pulse with drums and sax added to the mix and which, along with the following Ebb & Flow, showed that the band could swing with the latter in particular recalling some of Morrison’s work. Passing Places has Kathleen MacInnes singing in Gaelic on the album and her absence tonight led to a fine rearrangement of the number with guitarist Lyle Watt playing slide on a resonator guitar with string section adornment, the end result like a Celtic version of a Ry Cooder number. As on the album it slid into the wonderful tones of Sandaig, a song which has grown in substance in live appearances over the past year or so until it stands today as a modern folk classic – the litany of place names, the evocation of nature and the celebration of humanity just astounding.
Colin Steele’s muted trumpet added yet another colour to the band’s rainbow on Nashville Blue, his playing a lonesome jazz backdrop over the strings and Wilson’s aching voice – here his repetition of several of the lines recalled the Morrison of Listen To The Lion. Over The Hill Remains A Heart was preceded by a very funny Danny Thompson tale which gave Wilson the idea for the song, given a powerful rendition tonight, the band and strings joined at the hip with Ross Ainslie’s whistle adding a fine folky air. Roseanne Reid took the stage to sing with Wilson on Love Is…, replacing Julie Fowlis who sings on the album version, for what is a fine poppy number given an extra boost by the fine fiddle playing of Seonaid Aitken with the song occupying some of the same territory as The Bluebells’ Young At Heart. Next, Iain Sloan’s pedal steel slid the band into Polaris, another grand sweep of a song which again allowed the strings and horns a fine opportunity to swell around the basic rhythm of the band.
Introducing The Water, Wilson explained that some people had doubted the wisdom of including a ten minute instrumental on his album; he prevailed. As he sat to the side, Steele, Bassist James Lindsay and John Lowrie on piano transformed the hall into a late night jazz club with the trio sounding like a cross between Miles Davis, John Coltrane and John Martyn (yes, weird but true). This experimentation continued on To The Shore, an impassioned and spirited voyage into a turbulent folk-jazz explosion with sweet string section fed verses leading into violent stabs of piercing trumpet, wailing pedal steel, fiddle skirls and curling guitar. Increasingly animated as the song progressed, Wilson here showed that he is truly grabbing all his antecedents to create a thrilling new sound. Child closed the album run through, prefaced by some personal thoughts from Wilson who is about to become a father. It’s another of his wonderful meditations on life, suffused with hope and optimism, burnished with memories of past mistakes.
Had they finished here the audience would surely have been satisfied but the show was then extended for another 40 minutes or so as we were treated to some of the back catalogue. With a small orchestra at his disposal Wilson was able to dip into the past and come up with some fine new arrangements for some of his hallowed songs. Where The Westlin’ Winds Do Carry Me came up first, a plaintive lament with the “jazz trio” backing, Wilson scatting and simply superb. Pokesdown Waltz, the ultimate break up song was transformed with Ross Ainsley’s whistle and Angus Lyon’s accordion added to the usual piano backing while Julie, a song from his first album, was again given a folky makeover with accordion to the fore while the audience were invited to clap along towards the exhilarating end of the song. On a roll Wilson was obviously enjoying himself, taking time to introduce the songs and tell anecdotes including when he met Hugh McDiarmid’s grandson before singing his version of McDiarmid’s Scotland, again inviting the audience to join in. There was a fine windswept delivery of From Wester Ross To Novia Scotia before the band swung back into their jazzier mode for an excellent Silent Drum with Konrad Wisnieski’s saxophone driving the song along creating a sound similar to that achieved by Dudu Pukwana on John and Beverly Martyn’s Road To Ruin.
On the home run by now Wilson thanked Seonaid Aitken for her string arrangements for all the songs before singing Edina, his ode to his native city. Thereafter all the band were name checked before Whitechapel swung into view, the audience on their feet by the end as the closing number, Oh North, radically reinvented with Ross Ainslie on border pipes, saw Wilson passionately singing about his homeland and his pride in the Saltire, a rousing close. Two hours had elapsed since Billy Sloan had introduced the band but the audience demanded an encore and all 14 musicians along with Ms. Reid returned for a full ensemble version of Grateful with everyone allowed a short solo.
This was genuinely one of the most thrilling concerts I’ve attended for a long time. There is a rapport between Wilson and his audience that is heart warming and the large ensemble was a unique opportunity to hear the wide vistas of The Water Of Leith in a live setting. However, having seen Wilson play a variety of shows ranging from solo performances to duos, trios, quartets and upwards, I can ascertain that his delight and gratitude on show tonight is always present.
We must mention the support act, Roseanne Reid. Another musician raised in Leith she is rapidly climbing the ladder in Scotland and is about to record her debut album with Teddy Thompson and Steve Earle. Having seen her on several occasions she is growing in confidence on stage and she has the songs to back this up. Hearing the likes of Amy, Levi and Sweet Annie you can see why Earle rates her. It was nice to hear her tackling a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, Up Above My Head, sang for her mother who was in the audience. Nice and chunky with her voice getting into a gospel style it was a side of Ms. Reid I hadn’t seen before and the audience loved it.
Photography by Stewart Sandison