Although the Union Chapel has become one of London’s best venues, hosting number many high profile acts, there’s still something slightly odd for me about going to church to see a gig. Still that said, St. Pancras Old Church is now becoming a regular entry on my calendar and is also the site of some memorable nights, albeit of a much more intimate nature. It has a capacity of just 120 and freestanding seats rather than pews, with a standing area at the back. The sound is never going to be loud, so it’s a place where people have to pay respect to the artist and their fellows, so chatter is none existent during the performances, which is at it should be.
For Blue Rose Code all of the seats are already taken by the time I arrive, despite getting there in time to catch the support acts. Ross has thoughtfully given a platform to MG Boulter and Samantha Whate, both of whom are part of his band on The Ballads of Peckham Rye and also on the night. Both, however, have their own work in progress and Matt is a fine guitarist and singer with a nicely lyrical line in songs (read our review of The Water Or The Wave). Samantha too has a voice that warrants further research, but more of each in their turn.
By the time Ross and the expanded Blue Rose Code take their places, the back area has also filled out and we must be pretty close to the optimum number of people. I am prompted to move forward a little from my back ledge perch and in doing so note that the sound fills up markedly, with more depth and warmth to it, something worth bearing in mind for the future.
Ross is joined by MG Boulter switching to pedal steel and resonator, Samantha on guitar and vocals and Jesse Moncrieff on fiddle, with John ‘Colonel’ Parker of Nizlopi fame on double bass. There are also occasional contributions from drummer Dan Paton and a couple of guests, one of whom is Cyrus Shahrad on keyboards. He provided the sleeve notes for The Ballads of Peckham Rye and under his working name of Hiatus also remixed Edina.
Although this is billed as a launch for the new album, the set is a nice mix of the new and for many the more familiar songs of Blue Rose Codes debut, North Ten. The songs sit happily side by side and although Ross is very capable of bring them to life with just his own voice and acoustic guitar, the extra cast of players makes this a special night. From my new vantage point the sound is superb and the flow of the songs creates a wash of emotions, forged by the intensity and passion that Ross throws into his performance. He’s animated and has the look of someone for whom every word is meant and every phrase is laden with significance.
But then of course the fact is that everything is utterly heartfelt. The battles that Ross has had with his personal demons may be the creative spark, still the fires rage bright and wide as the sweep of his poetry tackles his fears and hurt, but also the hope, the love and the growing sense of a life lived anew. The strands of his autobiography run through the doubts and promises of The Light Of You and runs a direct line from Whitechapel to Edina, and his Edinburgh roots.
Best of all is the middle section of the set where his expansive vision is given free rein through Where The Westlin’ Winds Do Carry Me into Acquainted With The Night, which in turn segues into Silent Drums. Taking in the wider horizons From Wester Ross To Nova Scotia then drops to the bruised intimacy of Skin & Bones only for Come The Springtime to take us back to the wider skies with, “Aurora Borealis as my witness,” which is surely one of the best lines of all time. A personal geographical landscape is invested with an allegorical, mythical almost mystical air.
The set closes appropriately enough with the laying to rest of The Ghost Of Leith, with the most tender of love songs, Julie. The enthusiastic requests for an encore are obliged with an unfamiliar song simply called Love before Danny Thompson joins Ross for the now rewritten This Is Not A Folk Song. Finally, Oh North is proof that if the ghosts of the past are not banished forever, they’ve at least been put in their place and some of his history is finally starting to take on a new significance for Ross.
I’m also happy to report that after the show Ross, although looking visibly shattered, is at the merch-table talking to all comers and seemingly doing a brisk trade. Those who have seen this gig have unquestionably connected and are looking for an extra little piece of it to take home, even a word or a smile will do the trick. With the Kings Cross night sky as my witness, this has been an evening to remember.
Review by: Simon Holland
True Ways Of Knowing
The Ballads Of Peckham Rye is out now via Ronachan Songs