Beth Orton was a few songs into her set Wednesday night at El Rey Theatre. Standing alone and accompanying herself on guitar, she had performed material from her lovely new album, Sugaring Season (Anti), re-creating their rustic, autumnal moodiness, her voice filled with a preternatural mystery.
But then she had a request: Could the soundman make an adjustment? There was “too much ringy-ring” in her vocal mic.
That unguarded moment, a peek behind the curtain revealing the goofy, flesh-and-blood woman behind the ethereal sound, didn’t break the mood; it only made her more lovable, albeit in a very British manner.
And like the new album – her first in six years – the concert completes her move away from the electronic/folk hybrid of acclaimed breakthroughs like Trailer Park and Central Reservation and her early work with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers. Her sound is now closer to the folk feel of Bert Jansch (she appeared on the late guitarist’s final album, 2006’s Black Swan), filled with finger-picked melodies and nature metaphors in the tradition of English Romanticism.
Despite the spare set-up, Orton managed to create a large, alluring sound. Her deceptively simple picking (mostly using her thumb and forefinger) and non-standard tunings allow for open strings to create sustained tones, while a Fender Rhodes filled the space on the Laura Nyro-esque “Last Leaves of Autumn.” And her voice is a stunning instrument that can billow out like an approaching fog bank; it pulls you in and conveys a stunning range of emotion.
The 90-minute show was very much a family affair. Her husband, Sam Amidon, opened with a short set in the style of Nick Drake and John Fahey, then joined the headliner for part of her performance. They had to stop at one point; even at the end of this tour they weren’t sure when a chorus was supposed to come in. There was a back-and-forth as they tried to figure it out, until finally they laughed and decide to start the song over.