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Beth Orton: Back in Business and Back to Basics

article by Adam Hunt

The opening act for Beth Orton, before an intimate crowd at Higher Ground, was Sam Amidon, an off-beat folkie of theatrical persuasion. At the end of his set, Sam played an excellent “Wedding Dress”, an old-fashioned song famously associated with the English band Pentangle, a 60s act who specialized in virtuosic, jazzy work-ups of traditional songs.

Beth Orton

It is easy to compare Beth Orton to any of the great English folk singers from the 60s, but hearing Sam sing “Wedding Dress” evokes Jacqui McShee, the singer for Pentangle, a band famously comprised of non-conformist folk musicians. Similarly, when Beth Orton released her album Trailer Park in 1996, the pretty folk-styled songs were presented over a tapestry of restive trip-hop sounds. At the time (this was pre-OK Computer, pre- iPod, pre-Hogwarts), Beth’s sound was wholly fresh: her adoption of electonic music was just as defiant to folk music traditions as Pentangle’s jazzy ensemble playing, and just as much a sign of something modern.

When Sam exited the stage, there were still two microphones set-up, a good hint that he might be returning to join in at some point during the “solo acoustic” headliner. Beth Orton appeared on stage shortly afterward looking Lilith Fair, wearing a faded green t-shirt and jeans, long bangs falling over her face, and a guitar that she confessed she’d “borrowed”.

When she began her set, it was quickly apparent that the audience would be in for a purely acoustic show. The quiet guitar arrangements left plenty of space for Beth’s voice, with its signature emotion and accent, and effectively put her lyrics on center-stage. In this fashion, “Someone’s Daughter”, which is rather poppy in the album version, was revealed as a soft meditation on being disconnected in some way from one’s parents. Other highlights of the first half of Beth’s set, all sung over soft, hypnotic guitar, include “Countenance”, “Touch Me With Your Love”, “Conceived”, “She Cries Your Name”, and “Safe In your Arms.”

Bert Jansch & Beth Orton
Bert Jansch & Beth Orton

After a nice new song, Beth said that she was visiting in Vermont for Easter, but that normally “she doesn’t get out that much.” The present show seems to have been a rather impromptu affair as, indeed, it is rare for Beth to venture far from home or even to perform publicly these days. Since the release of her last album in 2006, she has been occupied with her family (apparently she is a mom), admittedly not recording much, although she did sing some for Bert Jansch (whose excellent album Black Swan features Beth’s vocals on three stand-out tracks). Perhaps that’s why she seemed more comfortable in the second part of the show, when Sam Amidon returned on stage to accompany her with his guitar and back-up vocals. The duo played a loose set including some of Beth’s better songs including “Shopping Trolley” (heartfealt, her voice really shining), “Sugar Boy” (followed by some jitters, a few yoga stretches, and laughter), “Thirteen” (a Big Star cover, during which Beth seemed happy to let Sam play most of the guitar parts) and “Concrete Sky” (outstanding, a highlight of the show).

Toward the end of the concert, Beth sang “Spotlight” in response to a shouted-out request. She was “too rusty”, she said, to sing “Carmella”; however, she confidently launched into a show-stopping performance of the title track from her 1999 album Central Reservation. The finale was a bluesy rendition of “Stolen Car”, a song about regrets and also a nice thematic counterpoint to the more cavalier “Central Reservation.” In a brief encore, Beth treated the crowd to a gentle version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, a song whose obviously spiritual (and probably ambiguous) lyrics recall some of the major themes in Beth’s own songwriting. Even so, it would have been nice if she finished with one of her own songs.


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