Having initially embarked on a musical journey at the latter end of the 1970s, the talents of Glasgow-born Rose McDowall reached a wider audience via the polka-dot pop of Strawberry Switchblade during the 1980s. Alongside Jill Bryson, McDowall’s time in Strawberry Switchblade managed to capture an intriguing emotional soundscape that put baroque pop in the charts. Compositions such as ‘Trees and Flowers’ (inspired by Bryson’s agoraphobia) and the duo’s biggest hit ‘Since Yesterday’ (apparently inspired by, of all things, nuclear war) ensured Strawberry Switchblade marked their place in musical history.
While Strawberry Switchblade sadly came to an eventual end, McDowall has continued in a variety of musical endeavours in the years since. This includes collaborations with the likes of Coil, Psychic TV and Alex Fergusson as well as her folk-rock vehicle Sorrow.
With the chance to catch McDowall live in London (in the appropriately intimate setting of The Lexington), it would be remiss to let that opportunity to slide by. Particularly with a setlist designed to showcase her extensive musical catalogue.
Joining the Scottish musician on support duties is suave electronic duo Cult With No Name. Consisting of Erik Stein and Jon Boux, the duo have previously chalked up eight studio albums of sublime tunes. They’ve also collaborated with German film-maker Peter Braatz to produce a soundtrack for his documentary Blue Velvet Revisited.
Cult With No Name’s set oozes style and sophistication, particularly on classic compositions such as the tumbling elegance of ‘Swept Away’, the moody ‘Breathing’ and the immersive joys of When I Was A Girl’. The duo also throw a nod to their Blue Velvet contributions care of the reflective moodiness of ‘No News’.
“Here’s a new one” intones Erik for a busier more percussive number titled ‘Mona’ (from new album Mediaburn). There’s a machine-like drive to the rhythms with some choral elements peppered throughout and some wistful lyrics (“Your paper-thin ways still enrapturing us”).
“It’s time, the seasons are changing” suggests Stein, “so let’s welcome in the new season with an appropriate cover version.” The result is a plaintive piano opening for an effective cover of The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’. It’s a fine set of songs and a fine opener before Rose McDowall strides onto the stage.
When she does hit the stage, with full band ensemble, the first thing that stands out is McDowall’s fairly blunt stage banter which immediately warms the audience up. Despite some chaotic tumble on the stage between her mic and a music stand, she swiftly launches into an evocative ‘Deep Water’. This Strawberry Switchblade classic has a smooth quality in this live take with McDowall’s distinctive Scottish burr lending it the same familiar charm that made the duo such an iconic outfit.
McDowall then darts into her later 80s period with tunes culled from her Cut With the Cake Knife album (These songs, penned in 1988 and 1989, included songs originally conceived for the follow-up Strawberry Switchblade album). Up for consideration is the airy ‘Soldier’ (with some subtle violin work) and a superbly dynamic ‘Crystal Nights’ (which is preceded by some witty commentary on whether it should actually be titled ’Crystal Meth’ – and segues into an intriguing anecdote about being “sectioned in LA” which somehow involves the purloining of a police gun…).
Things change gear for a visit to McDowall’s Sorrow period care of ‘Ruby Tears’. Some pastoral flute accompanies this composition which offers bittersweet lines such as “One red rose for the dying.” Equally, ‘Loki and Evil’ has a mesmerising baroque folk-pop charm to it which is given an edge via some mini Theremin accompaniment).
With things warming up in the venue, McDowall quips: “If you find yourselves getting too hot you can just fuck off…” This is followed up by a more languid guitar-led piece titled ‘Stone’, which also features some Theremin elements.
Taking a break from proceedings, McDowall talks about working with filmmaker Grant McPhee on the soundtrack to his latest film Far From The Apple Tree (a project she worked on with writing partner Shawn Pinchbeck). Drawing from that soundtrack, she delivers a haunting tune which is given some suitably reedy violin accompaniment.
“This song needs no fucking introduction…” gives us the inevitable ‘Since Yesterday’. Here, the classic tune has a much more organic feel to it. The guitars and violin lend the song a touch of Americana and a warmer quality. But there’s no mistaking McDowall’s powerful vocal delivery which gives lines such as “And as we sit here alone/Looking for a reason to go on” an emotional heft that still works its magic some 35 years later.
“This is quite a sad song – don’t hold back!” comments McDowall, before admonishing the crowd for giving a cheery laugh. The tune, ’Turn Off The Light’, is certainly a powerful moment in the set. Here, McDowall’s vocal is given more of a showcase and there’s a dramatic quality about lines such as “Turn off the light and cry” that suggests hankies may need to be kept at the ready.
“We don’t have any more songs – so we stole someone else’s…” adds McDowall before embarking on an effective cover of ‘Sunday Morning’, which also features some nice violin touches. Despite it being a well-known track in its Velvet Underground incarnation, there’s something in this rendition that suggests it could almost have been written for Rose McDowall.
Yet despite the performance coming to a close, it’s clear that the audience wants the evening to never end. Buoyed up by the crowd’s enthusiasm, singer and band swiftly file back out on stage, as if wishing to rush things along. “You’ve plenty of time” quips an audience member. “Yes, but we don’t have plenty of songs…” replies McDowall bluntly.
In fact, we get a “wee poem”, which is ‘I Wish I Was A Fairy’ (for which a 12-year-old Rose McDowall apparently won 50p back in the day). This is followed by an extended reverie on death, particularly near-death experiences (which apparently McDowall’s drummer is familiar with – although we don’t get that particular story). “I dreamt of drowning once” muses McDowall, “it was fucking awesome”. Then it’s onto a repeat performance of ‘Deep Water’ which closes a thoroughly enthralling live show.