Dave Simpson The Guardian, Wednesday 28 November 2012 14.38 GMT
Beth Orton Plays Sheffield Warm acoustics … Beth Orton at Memorial Hall, Sheffield. Photograph: Neil H Kitson/Redferns
“Good evening Shef-f-f-f-f-iel-d-d-d,” begins Beth Orton, as an incorrectly set microphone makes her voice sound as if it has been remixed by King Tubby. Then there’s no sound at all, and the bewildered singer prepares to entertain everyone without amplification.
Orton is touring Sugaring Season, her first album in six years, and the gremlins are out in force: her keyboard stool is too small; her guitar will not tune. “C’mon, you little fucker!” she squeals. One song halts twice as she explains that her hair keeps getting in her mouth. She laughs and asks: “What am I doing?”
It’s not an existential question, but sums up the elemental qualities of Orton’s music; her hapless between-songs persona contrasts with the powerful figure in them. After emerging as the 1990s’ “comedown queen” (because clubbers would wind down to her gentle sounds after a night out), she came of age with beautifully troubled folk songs about life and death, principally her mother’s. Now a married parent herself, Orton’s new songs have the kind of peace about them that can perhaps only be found after emotional trauma. “I have no need for innocence or grief,” she sings, her voice heavy with experience, and an ever-so-slight throaty quiver she attributes to “spending 90 minutes in a car with her small child coughing in my ear”.
The stripped-down format (she is occasionally joined by violinist-guitarist Sam Amidon) is less dynamic than her full-band performances. But Something More Beautiful gains from the transformation as it careers from disarming prettiness to raw power, and 1999’s Blood Red River remains tearfully haunting.
Dolphins, which she has previously sung with the late Terry Callier, may feel “weird without his voice”, but it is a lovely tribute. The two-hour set ends with requests. “Sweetest Decline,” shouts a fan. “Oh bollocks!” she exclaims, but obliges anyway.