Live: Beth Orton – The Junction, Cambridge
The stage may be set up with electronic keyboards like early Depeche Mode and feature a drum kit adorned with synthesiser pads but this is definitely not a show bereft of the human touch. You don’t get the singer at a Kraftwerk gig complaining that “some f***ing c**t has swapped the stickers around” in reference to the colour coding on her keys used in lieu of the ability to read music.
Live, Beth Orton has always sought a balance between nervous, endearing on stage chat and finding a meaningful connection with her songs. Tonight, despite claiming she just wants to play and is too shy to talk to us, that symmetry is realised. I haven’t seen her perform with this much clarity of intent for years.
When Beth Orton’s breakthrough album ‘Trailer Park’ arrived 20 years ago any traceable background seemed to be from the world of Electronic and Dance music. She’d made a barely noticed Japan only album produced by William Orbit and had supplied vocals on tracks by the Chemical Brothers. But then out of nowhere she appeared to have a heavy handle on the world of Folk and wore the coat of a Joni Mitchell for the early hours comedown set, awash with acoustics yet still locked into spacey bleeps and clicks of the Electronic world. Beth Orton’s ‘Folktronica’ was a genuinely unique proposition back then, she didn’t belong in anybody’s club. She was no more likely to be sharing jelly babies with Kate Rusby than she was to be largin’ it in Ibiza with Pete Tong. The musical possibilities on that 1996 record seemed endless; there was no way of predicting where she’d go next.
So it’s been a touch surprising how far into the traditional singer-songwriter territory Beth subsequently fell. 1999’s ‘Central Reservation’ is arguably her strongest collection but it did commence a push away from modern sounds which may have lost her some followers at the time. I wouldn’t argue that she’s ever put out a bad album; all her releases have moments that reach for the stars and capture a gem. Still a folksy looseness has prevailed, a raggle-taggle shambling muse trading in the sonics in return for a more predictable rootsiness. Inevitably on occasion that has lead to the odd misfire. But now we have new release ‘Kidsticks’ and in a beat Beth is embracing the synthesiser again, not only re-engaging with the genre hopping of her early days but newly re-galvanised and focused.
It’s that focus that has the audience entranced tonight. This is the first time since she appeared at this exact same venue in 1997 that I have not been able to take my ears and eyes off of a Beth Orton gig. She’s behind the keyboard for all the new tracks but this unfamiliar set up also allows for her to breathe new life into old ‘Trailer Park’ classics like ‘Touch Me With Your Love’ and ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’. She’s also free to lose herself in the songs and the site of Orton letting go enough to pull a few gentle dance moves is to witness an artist who, to quote one audience member near me, really means it. She’s the real deal. However, for all the revived sense of purpose this wholesale reconnection of sonic detail brings, the most devastatingly gorgeous moment tonight was when she played ‘Pass In Time’ alone with acoustic guitar. That was an incredibly moving goose bump moment, played to a crowd who, as once before a long time ago, are hungry to witness which directions and surprises Beth Orton’s musical journey delivers next.
Review By: Danny Neill