Saltwater & Stone Review - Living Orkney July 2009

WORDS: John Ross Scott

PHOTOS: Tom O’Brien

Saltwater & Stone by Jo Philby (Newtonhill Records)
Every now and again a CD emerges from the local scene that demands that you sit up and take heed.
Jo Philby’s long awaited debut is a perfect example of this.
The launch of ‘Saltwater & Stone’ in front of an enthusiast 80-strong gathering at the Saturday lunchtime session at this year’s Orkney Folk Festival was the culmination of years of preparation, but, with copies of the album only arrived back in Orkney the day before Jo joked: “ This can now be classed as a ‘Near Miss’ album launch.”
Starting, unaccompanied – alone on the stage with the audience stunned into complete silence – Jo began with the haunting ‘Summer At My Feet’. When she finished the applause was deafening.
The album was clearly going to be a winner from that point on as layer upon layer of different musicians joined her on stage and the sound built to a crescendo right up to the final offering of the sing-along Bill Staines song ‘River.’
On stage by then were Jo’s bodhran playing husband Roger, fiddler Fiona Driver, guitarist Graham Simpson, flautist Derek Curtis, and backing vocalist Elma Cullen.
Others who participated on the album but couldn’t be there for the launch were harpist Mark Shiner, guitarist Gavin Firth and bass player and record producer, Phil Anderson.

A live quality 

The contrast between this half hour show and the first time I saw Jo perform at the Folk Festival’s Firth Ceilidh back in 2004 was immense. Her distinctive voice still holds its pitch well but maturity - shown in stance, presentation and overall confidence - had taken over from the rawness of five years before.
The joy is that the album manages to hold all of the energy shown in Jo’s live performance.
After the launch she told Living Orkney: “I’ve been thinking about making an album for a year or so. At recent gigs folk have asked ‘Have you got a CD’ so this year I decided to go for it and what better a place to launch it than Orkney Folk Festival!
“Because this is my debut album I had the luxury of choosing some of my favourite songs from the past. The selection is a variety of traditional, contemporary and chorus songs.”
She added: “Most traditional singers get the reputation of singing depressingly sad songs about lovers that have died. I prefer to sing more uplifting songs. On this CD I only managed to kill off two people, which is quite an achievement!”
She acknowledges that she has a lot of friends to thank for helping her bring ‘Saltwater and Stone’ together, not least her husband Roger – whom she classes as “my inspiration” – producer Phil Anderson, who “had never recorded a traditional singer before”, Sara Daniels for providing her with some enchanting songs and her closest friend, Fiona Driver, who as well as accompanying her allowed her to use her record label.

Orcadian environment

Jo started taking an interest in English and Irish traditional music in Surrey where she was born and brought up. She first sang at the children’s workshop at Devon’s International Folk Festival in Sidmouth and, also, became devoted to music at school.
In 1994 she married Roger – who also plays with the Orkney Band Shoot The Piper – and they moved to Orkney and set up Fluke Jewellery in Birsay in 2002.
“What I wanted to create for this album were enjoyable songs that merge well with the Orkney environment, supported by really sensitive accompaniment to make it enjoyable to the listener.”
All that has been achieved.

A special voice

Her special voice entices you in to the collection right away with the first words of ‘Follow The Heron’ which state that ‘the back of the winter is broken and the seeds of summer have spoken’. Although this was written by Karine Polwart about Shetland it portrays a strong image of Orkney as well.
Emily Smith, who won the 2008 Scottish Folk Singer of the Year award, is one of Jo’s favourite songwriters so it is no surprise to see ‘A Day Like Today’ featured. It is a perfect contemporary song written in a traditional way with the odd ‘twas’ thrown in for good measure.
‘Summer At My Feet’ by acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Ger Wolfe is again a song for the seasons. Sung to great effect unaccompanied, Jo’s voice like a haunting clarinet weaves the tapestry as she sings of “buttercups and roses” and a lover with “eyes as deep as the ocean.”
Then there are the upbeat numbers like ‘Down The Moor’ - which has Fiona Driver’s ‘Pig Reels’ attached – which tells of a lad who is besotted by a lass who lives ‘down the moor and across the heather”. It has a difficult tune, but the timing is brilliantly executed by Jo and her five piece back-up.
Likewise, the aforementioned ‘River’ is an outright winner and definitely the most commercial song on the album.
My favourites, however, are ‘Old Man Time’ and ‘Under The Moon’. The first is an enchanting Kate Rusby song that highlights the preciousness of time and how it passes so quickly. Driver’s work on the fiddle brings the poignancy of not doing enough with our lives to the fore. It is brilliant and, rightly, got a massive response at the launch.
‘Under The Moon’ by Jenny Crook on the other hand is an excuse for fun, using as bait a lad asking a lass to dance naked under the moon. Humour and perception are to the fore and the fiddle and Graham’s guitar back-up is perfect.
‘The Constant Lovers’ is a beautiful but sad song with mellow drops of harp from Mark Shiner.
‘Blackbirds and Thrushes’ reminded me of my love of Steeleye Span and Pentangle in the 1970s, ‘Fal da li diddle’ stuff layered with thick strumming guitar and meandering flute, while Sara Daniels ‘Orcadian Dream’ is special in more ways than one. It is an exceptional song but according to Jo its lyrics express everything that drew Jo and Roger Philby to live in Orkney.

13 Exceptional tracks

There are 13 tracks in total and all of them are exceptional. This is a showstopper of a CD.

With ‘Saltwater & Stone’ now selling well, Jo – who is enjoying a new found celebrity status - intends to perform locally during July, so keep an eye on local press for details. She will also tour in the south during November with Fiona Driver and Graham Simpson.