Royal Albert Hall, London
It doesn’t always help to be first with an idea. In the mid-1990s, singer-songwriter Beth Orton hit upon the notion that clubbers might like to hear some calming acoustic music as their drugs wore off. She was the first person to pad out folky songs with voguish breakbeats and ambient synthesisers, a trick that grabbed the attention of David Gray and Dido. While they went on to multi-platinum success, however, Orton was left with middling sales, moderate critical acclaim (it doesn’t really feel like the Brits or the Mercury music prize unless Orton gets an unsuccessful nomination) and rock’s rummest nickname: the Comedown Queen, which makes her sound like a chubby mother hen.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Willowy, fair-haired, tall to the point of gawkiness and unconventionally pretty, Orton looks like the result of a genetic experiment to engineer the world’s ultimate female singer-songwriter. She never looks quite right unless she is holding an acoustic guitar.
Her songs are similarly engineered, with tasteful folk-rock influences: Joni Mitchell-ish vocal swoops, the languid double-bass sound pioneered by Danny Thompson, Nick Drake-like orchestrations, jazzy inflections via Terry Callier. They trundle along, charming yet oddly uniform, and devoid of anything approaching a hook. Central Reservation and She Cries Your Name flicker fitfully, but never quite burst into life. The audience greet each song with tentative applause, as if they are not quite sure which one it is.
That confusion is understandable, at least until the second encore, when Orton performs acoustic covers of the Five Stairsteps’ Ooh Child and the Ronettes’ I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine. The latter in particular is a remarkable reinvention, stripping away the hysterical excesses of Phil Spector’s production to reveal a wonderfully tender melody and heartbreaking lyrics, perfectly suited to Orton’s voice. For three minutes she sounds perfect, as deserving of superstardom as anyone, but it only serves to underline her big problem. Orton is a singer-songwriter in search of a decent chorus.