By David Honigmann FINANCIAL TIMES
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.
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.