Credit: Photos by Matthew Shaver, words by Julian Booker
From the moment I walked into World Cafe Live on Tuesday night, I knew it was going to be a mellow affair—Dawn Landes working towards the halfway point of her opening solo slot to a sparsely-crowded standing room floor, flanked by a mostly-full mezzanine and downstairs seated section. The stage, set only with a few extra acoustic guitars and Fender Rhodes piano gave no indication that the evening would include a full band at any point. It came as a surprise—many of the best moments on Orton’s 2012 ANTI- Records debut (and sixth full-length overall), Sugaring Season, include accompanying musicians, if not a complete ensemble.
I embraced the reality right away, however, as Landes showed off her own Kentucky-by-way-of- Paris style…think of a voice with the timbre of Jessica Lea Mayfield comfortably transitioning between English and French. Her beautifully-crafted performance set a perfect tone for the evening, particularly with the masterfully-picked new composition, “Bluebird.” Following her set, Landes received a warm response from the crowd, which began filling in towards the stage in anticipation of the evening’s main event.
It was an indication of the way the night would unfold when Miss Orton unceremoniously walked on-stage with the house lights and music still on and a recently-brewed cup of tea in hand. The Norwich, England native looked a part of Portland, OR—the city in which she recorded her most recent album with producer-extraordinaire Tucker Martine—wearing jeans and a new flannel shirt (later revealed to have been purchased in our fair city that afternoon). This casual approach allowed much of the evening the air of a living room performance, with Orton offering appreciated, but often unremarkable, anecdotes about her songs, and occasionally pausing mid-note to repair a botched chord or mis-sung melody.
Not that these imperfections were unwelcome, however. In fact, the most enjoyable aspect of the evening was Orton offering pieces of her catalogue up in their most basic form, her selections becoming more about the process of writing the compositions themselves, each performance relying on the inherent strength of its host-structure. And fortunately, Beth Orton’s melody’s are strong, her guitar work capable, and her voice wholly unique, an occasionally finely tuned instrument that regularly meets, or moves beyond its breaking point.
Her promise to perform “songs from her latest record…and a few others” began with an a capella take on Comfort of Strangers‘ “Pieces of Sky.” That was followed by fiveSugaring Season selections including “Call Me the Breeze” (which Orton usually sings with Dawn Landes, who was disappointingly nowhere to be found) and “Poison Tree,” an excellent approach to the William Blake poem of same name set to Orton’s own original music and melody. It set a haunting tone that found itself interrupted by a more aggressive rendition of “Something More Beautiful”–an excellent track that could not quite hold up in Tuesday’s setting, sounding more forced than any other song of the evening. Though “Paris Train” was played with a similar energy, its intensity propelled it past the previous songs and provided an excellent segue into the “Beth Orton, Solo with Rhodes” portion of the evening.
Miss Orton joked that her next album would be called just that, as she sat down at the electric piano and gave the audience great offerings of “Worms” and “Last Leaves of Autumn.” It is such a pleasure to see how a master of song construction takes to a new instrument, Rhodes being Orton’s self-proclaimed current favorite, and she shined. Of particular note was the first number, another Comfort of Strangers track that provides the perfect balance between the angst-ridden work of Fiona Apple and Orton’s own, more patient aesthetic. Moving back to the guitar, Orton shook off increasingly frequent crowd requests (to which she had previously obliged) with standout “Sweetest Decline,” a cyclical song that comfortably relies on her vocals to carry its intentional and effective repetition.
Though the next three offerings were welcome additions to the set, they paled in comparison to its final trio of “Blood Red River,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” and “Magpie.” Orton spoke of her work and friendship with Bert Jansch and his importance in her most recent work, calling Sugaring Season “an homage” to the late Scottish folk legend and attributing his introduction of Anne Briggs’ “Go Your Way” as the main inspiration for “Shadow of a Doubt.” It was a fitting close to Miss Orton’s frame-proper, with the spirit of her predecessors deeply present within her chosen compositions, giving the audience a clear glimpse of where she as at this very moment as a songwriter.
For the encore, Orton finally succumbed to the relentless crowd calls to play her best known single, Trailer Park’s “She Cries Your Name.” During show-closer, “Central Reservation,” I couldn’t help but notice how appropriate the lyrics were for the evening: “today is whatever I want it to mean.” Tuesday’s performance from Beth Orton was entirely in her hands—a wonderfully unique opportunity to see a songwriter in her most pure form, with just an instrument and her voice—playing exactly as she pleased. It wasn’t always perfect, but every person in the crowd at World Cafe Live seemed happy to see one of today’s great songwriters perform intimately, graciously, and alone. —Julian Booker
Beth Orton @ World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA – August 6, 2013
01 Pieces of Sky
02 Dawn Chorus
03 Call Me the Breeze
04 Poison Tree
06 Something More Beautiful
07 Paris Train
09 Last Leaves of Autumn
10 Sweetest Decline
11 Stars All Seem to Weep
12 Shopping Trolley
13 Pass in Time
14 Blood Red River
15 Shadow of a Doubt
17 She Cries Your Name
18 Central Reservation