Brisbane review

Imperfect songs for imperfect people – Reviewed by Bernard Zuel

City Recital Hall, January 17

LOOKING back over my reviews of Beth Orton’s previous tours here in 2003, 2004 and 2006, I realised that some things are, to quote a wholly appropriate for the occasion Joni Mitchell, ”as constant as a Northern Star”.

Orton will look long and slightly ungainly on stage, awkward between songs but amusing in her self-deprecation as she stuffs up an intro or tunes, and then retunes, her guitar. Her voice will crack but never break, its imperfections not just part of her appeal but at the heart of songs of imperfect people who live very much in the here and now, not some mythical land.

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Early stumblings and nervous mistakes will settle into a casual and comfortable atmosphere where we find ourselves halfway between living room and concert hall. And a song such as Sugar Boy will be achingly lovely and another like Central Reservation will be achingly desirous – the ache coming in the way Orton’s protagonist is always vulnerable but unafraid of risking it all again.

For all that, what has changed in the near six-year break since that last tour and album is as impressive and satisfying as the familiar comforts. The previously slightly stiff Conceived now feels like a song for a summer breeze: light and shimmery and skimming over the heat. And Shopping Trolley, also from 2006’s Comfort of Strangers, is shorn of its bustle and inherent assertiveness to reveal a more complex, nuanced response.

There is a brace of new songs which augurs well for the promised record. In one, she drops her voice and guitar tuning for a sound that has the pungent traces of old folk music but with the undercurrent of a world of not-so-old narcotics. In another, lines from a William Blake poem, the contrasting and complementary vocals of guest Sam Amidon and her own voice pitched higher, bring to mind the moments of Fotheringay four decades ago. Then, a song at the piano (”Steinway, I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy,” she joked) has the low-ember blues of Nina Simone.

Joni would be impressed and moved. We were.

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