‘It’s like playing in your front room,” Beth Orton said about the South Orange Performing Arts Center. The intimacy of SOPAC does tend to relax its visitors. Orton, the English singer-songwriter with a voice like a breeze from the Norfolk marshes, made herself comfortable on Friday night. Her 90-minute concert felt like a rowboat ride across a great lake on a misty afternoon — after a while, the shore was lost and the only reality was the gentle rocking of the waves and the erratic behavior of the woman at the oars.
Orton’s set was introspective, elliptical, dreamlike; one melody ebbed into the next. So mesmerizing is her material that she fell victim to its seamlessness: At one point, she stopped singing and conceded to her accompanist Sam Amidon that she’d forgotten where she was and had started playing a different song altogether.
She apologized for her voice during another performance, and cut yet another short and re-started it seconds later as if nothing had happened. An acoustic cover of “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps became an adventure: She missed a chord, cursed and begged the indulgence of her listeners. Because her music is beautiful and hypnotic as a rule, each of these breaks was jarring; a pot of ink flung at a still-life painting.
Yet none of this ruined the picture. Neither did Orton’s stage banter, which was sometimes inscrutably muttered, or the set list, which she appeared to be making up on the spot. The concert was saved from vagueness, and its errors, by the trancelike intensity Orton can summon mid-song. It was present on the folk-jazz “Last Leaves of Autumn,” performed on the Rhodes electric piano, and “Central Reservation,” an old favorite taken back from the electro-remixers who made it a modest club hit. It ran like a brook through “Mystery,” a near-circular song that closes the outstanding “Sugaring Season,” her latest album, and through the elegiac “Pass in Time.” Delivered flawlessly, these were spellbinding.
It is hard to remember now that Marcus Mumford is an international superstar and Laura Marling a name to celebrate, but Orton was once the keeper of the flame during a difficult time for British folk. In the mid-’90s, few wanted to hear about Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy or the Pentangle. It was only through a concession to the contemporary marketplace that Orton got her name, and her songwriting, known: Her early collaborators included electropop producer William Orbit, who fitted her stark melodies with machine beats and synthesizers. “Trailer Park,” her 1996 breakthrough album, was called “folktronica” and leaned toward the repetitive, near-mystical qualities of trip-hop.
Orton shed the synthetic elements of her music on the 2006 set “Comfort of Strangers,” and they haven’t been back since. “Sugaring Season,” a gem, arrived just in time for the British folk revival — a statement of continuing relevance from a woman who, at 42, can’t quite be called “elder” yet. In South Orange, Orton sought to align herself with English folk veterans, praising Anne Briggs, the grandmother of the movement, and reminding the crowd that she’d taken lessons from Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch. Her work with Jansch has not turned her into an acoustic guitar hero (she makes too many mistakes for that), but has imparted fluidity to her style and convinced her that, properly placed, a simple pattern of notes can ring as loudly as a full band.
Many of the “Sugaring Season” songs are presented simply; in concert, they were stripped down even further. “Call Me the Breeze,” a sweet, Nick Drake-style harmony number, relied on the interplay between Amidon’s plain, firm voice and Orton’s wail, which seems perpetually pitched on the far side of tears. Older songs were pushed toward minimalism, too: “Shopping Trolley,” the closest thing “Comfort” contained to a pop song, became a simple strum and an introvert’s whispered wish. “Pieces of Sky,” also from “Comfort,” was presented a cappella. “Galaxy of Emptiness,” an epic track from “Trailer Park,” was distilled to a phrase on the Rhodes and an anguished vocal.
Amidon, whose presence helped hold together the first half of the concert, vanished during the second half, leaving Orton to face the crowd by herself. He was missed, especially by Orton, who kept looking longingly over toward his side of the stage. Without the Vermont guitarist and singer — a fine folk revivalist in his own right — the concert began to deteriorate. Orton made more mistakes; her concentration slipped; she looked stranded. A few of the songs from the new record — especially the radiant “Dawn Chorus” — could have benefited from the discipline and direction imposed by a drum kit.
Yet the audience hung with her and was rewarded with a memorable, if slightly unmoored, performance by a living link between contemporary British folk and its 1960s roots.