Solo show illuminates Beth Orton’s affecting songs

Erik Ljung: Beth Orton played a solo-acoustic show at Turner Hall Ballroom Tuesday night.

By Jon M. Gilbertson, Special to the Journal Sentinel Oct.10,2012

A solo-acoustic show allows a musician to play without as much fuss and expense as she’d bear with a full band, reduces the distance between her and the crowd and proves that she can deliver a solid performance without the implied protection of other players.

At Turner Hall Ballroom Tuesday night, Beth Orton’s solo-acoustic show also allowed the audience to hear, more clearly, the through-lines of her supposedly chameleonic career.

The English singer-songwriter naturally focused a lot of the evening’s attention on songs from her nearly brand-new album, “Sugaring Season,” and those songs drew nourishment from the dark and loamy ground of her native land’s folk music.

The bitter-fruit lyrics of “Poison Tree” were particularly close to that soil. As Orton pointed out, she scooped them up from the poetry of William Blake and adapted them to her own purposes.

“Magpie” and the halting, haunting “Candles” – a song that didn’t so much go from a whisper to a scream as whisper and scream at the same time – drew from the fertile tradition as well, but the swaying sunniness of “Call Me the Breeze” showed that Orton’s version of folk also takes in American influences from the Appalachian Mountains to the California beaches.

The earlier phases of Orton’s career were eclectic in a different way, incorporating the beats and sharp surfaces of electronic music.

But in a solo-acoustic environment and thus shorn of everything but their basics, the 1996 song “Touch Me With Your Love” and the 1999 song “Stars All Seem to Weep” (with its hints of Belle and Sebastian, minus the fey bits) sounded of a piece with almost everything on “Sugaring Season” and nearly everything else in the set list.

This consistency wasn’t a startling epiphany, because Orton has always founded her music on melodies and insight rather than on silicon and trends.

However, the consistency did come into sharper relief in the spare arrangements, Orton’s affecting voice becoming by turns more vulnerable, more desolate and more loving (although those qualities could have been attributed to the lingering effects of a common cold she mentioned) and her melodies plainer in their subtle beauty.

Plainer, that is, but not too plain: Orton and her husband, Sam Amidon (who opened for his wife), played “State of Grace” with a charming sense of learning how to make their guitars cooperate, and she went to a baby grand piano to give a dance hall bounce to “Worms.”

It wasn’t a life-changing show, but it was a meditative one, giving both Orton and the appreciative listeners space to reflect upon her music and what it does to the heart.

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