Somewhere between Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention and Portishead, between the most haunting British folk and the most thoughtful trip-hop, there exists Beth Orton. With 1996’s Trailer Park, she became England’s queen of folktronica, a fire-starter of gentle melodies, aching lyricism, subtle versions of contemporary rhythms, and dark atmospheres. Since then, Orton has won a dedicated fan following with a series of lovely albums, including her most recent, the underrated Sugaring Season of 2012.
Before a large, deeply appreciative crowd Tuesday at World Cafe Live, a solo Orton stripped away her lustrous soundscapes to a minimum: acoustic guitar and Fender Rhodes. It’s good that the audience appreciated her: She was under the weather, with scuffed-up voice and sniffly nose.
That didn’t stop her from power-whispering her way through “Central Reservation,” or huskily hollering to the loud strum of “Something More Beautiful.” For the most part, however, she let her quieter, slightly scratchy vocals do the toughest (but tender) talking on songs fromSugaring Season such as “Dawn Chorus” and “Poison Tree,” the latter her musical setting of a William Blake poem.
During these numbers, Orton created circular melodic lines, repeating brief phrases for a hypnotic vibe, which honored her substantial lyrics. Yet the groove factor of her albums was not missing, supplied on the acoustic with a deeply stressed bass on tunes like “Call Me the Breeze.” The grittiest, most soulful moments came when she sat at the Fender Rhodes, letting the craggy emotions of the religious/romantic “Worms” and the celestial “Last Leaves of Autumn” sputter forth in a rush of words, as the bell tones of the keyboard rang.
Opening act Dawn Landes offered dulcet vocals, passionate romanticism, and spare, folksy arrangements. Though she performed some of her set in French, the Louisville, Ky., native stuck mostly to English-language songs and always to smart lyrics, as on tunes such as “Bluebird” and “Twilight.”