As long as you are not forgotten, a sabbatical can be a good thing in music. In a six year interim, Beth Orton’s highly accomplished early output dwelled in the psyches of fans, while she became a mother and then prepped herself for a return to a medium she almost abandoned. The strength of her work means, that after languishing in hiatus, the artist can return and still be greeted by the welcome embraces of a packed Royal festival hall.
As she starts with the upbeat “Call me the breeze,” themes of existence and nature are already laid bare. “Galaxy of emptiness” continues the sentiment, with a black stage and minimalist blue lighting making it appear like the songstress and her four-piece band are playing in a canyon under a starlit sky. In the midst are Orton’s vocals, still piercingly haunting.
Ghosts have always encircled the musician’s work, particularly that of her mother in earlier records. Now the spectres of folk mentor Bert Jansch and collaborator Terry Callier reside over her oeuvre; both exceptional talents having died in the last two years. Orton’s sole version of “Pass in time” a song about the death of her mother and originally sung with Callier, is particularly powerful.
It is an older, more reserved crowd tonight – the last leg of the tour. Those 90s clubbers, who would have once watched sunrises while Orton’s music simmered their fervour, are now also more serene. At certain points, they are even too docile. “I can’t tell if you’re enjoying yourselves at all” she asks with a hint of insecurity. In the time that she has had a break from music, modern folk has seen the likes of Laura Marling and Bella Hardy rise in prominence. Orton’s great performance should assure her that she can sit comfortably amongst those names.
In earlier works Orton could only see life through the eyes of a daughter. Maybe the hiatus and motherhood have reignited her creativity. “So nice to be making music again – I’m so happy” she excitedly declares to the audience after a sombre “Central reservation”. The lyrics of a new song best describe her comeback: “I’m hanging on like the last leaves of autumn, but I’m coming through like the first shoots of spring”. Yes there is death, but Sugaring Season and its ensuing tour, are more prominently about the rebirth of a folk heroine.