Beth Orton, Royal Festival Hall, London

By David Honigmann FINANCIAL TIMES

The best of the new songs shone, notably ‘Poison Tree’, a setting of Blake with a melody that sounded centuries old
Beth Orton©Rex FeaturesBeth Orton

In the 1990s Beth Orton was the Comedown  Queen, a musical mountain rescue service dedicated to accompanying ravers back  to sea level from their chemical heights. Perhaps in homage to this, her support  act, Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards, promised to end on a “crazy upbeat club  anthem”. What they served up, though, was another exquisite but molasses-paced  floppy-haired alt-country ballad, so in the event Orton had to create her own  high from which to descend.

She had been quiet for more than six years, having been dropped by her record  label, before making a surprise return last year with Sugaring Season,  a record as good as any of its predecessors, and dramatically more consistent.  She played most of it here, starting with “Call Me The Breeze”, a choogling  blues that sounded like a forgotten piece of whimsy from JJ Cale.

Orton was accompanied by a three-piece band: her husband Sam Amidon on guitar  and violin, Steve Nistor on drums and keyboards, and Sebastian Steinberg  switching between double bass and electric. One of the Coastguards, Horse,  propped up several songs on lap steel. In the past, Orton’s music has occupied a  niche between folk and electronica; the new configuration was decidedly acoustic  in tenor.

The best of the new songs shone, notably “Poison Tree”, a setting of Blake  with a melody that sounded centuries old. Generally, the emptier the musical  space, the better: the band at full tilt forced her to strain, but when  accompanying herself with acoustic guitar on “Something More Beautiful” or  playing rolling gospel piano chords on “Last Leaves Of Autumn” she was warm- and  strong-voiced. “See Through Blue”, a piano waltz, was brittle and bright. With  everyone playing on “Magpie”, though, a song that is airy on record sounded  trapped in a room and beating against the window.

The same pattern held for her older songs, all of them ecstatically received. “Central Reservation” got the loudest cheer of the night as she danced down a  South American road in “last night’s red dress”, but ran out of steam, its free  joy replaced by contemplation. A solo “Stolen Car”, though, shifted the  quick-paced wordplay into top gear. And even when stripped of its electronic  chimes “She Cries Your Name” was as compelling as ever.



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