Beth Orton @ City Recital Hall, Sydney (17/1/12)
As a lone figure, Beth Orton hardly commands attention. Shy, frail and introverted beyond the point of uncomfortable awkardness, she mumbles her audience addresses as she attempts to tune her guitar. On this alone, one would struggle to understand why practically the entirety of Sydney’s beautiful City Recital Hall has been filled – twice over, in fact, across two days – to watch this. When the silence is broken by the quaint finger-picking acoustic guitar and that unmistakable warble, the pieces fall into place. It clicks. It all makes sense. It’s not the aesthetics and the movements that matter in the slightest. They never have with an artist like Orton. It’s the music itself – moreover, the power of said music performed in this stripped back nature that presents little more than the skin and bones of songs old and new.
Opening with a folksy rendition of Someone’s Daughter, Orton sways gently in time with the music, as it slowly but surely washes across the audience and sinks in. Even after over a decade’s experience of performing, the nerves clearly still get to her as she attempts to make small talk in-between songs. She is by no means a tight, professional musical performer; and it’s this unpretentious charm that draws the audience in. Minor fumbles like putting the capo in the wrong place, taking a long time to tune and forgetting what fret the appropriate chord is supposed to go doesn’t make her seem amateur at all – they make her feel more human. Besides, it provides moments of relief from what can be utterly devastating songs of woe, love and loss.
Much of the set is borrowed from her best-known records, Trailer Park and Central Reservation. It’s the new material, however, that intrigues many fans in attendance, who have been patiently waiting since 2006’s Comfort of Strangers. The new songs seem to angle for a much more traditional folk feel, which suit both the aching croon and the resonating yodel of Orton’s multi-layered voice. Of particular interest is a new track that has its lyrics almost entirely taken from a William Blake poem. It is one that, although clearly not written by Orton herself, sees her connect deeply with the words as they are harmoniously sung out. Truly a sound to behold.
Having been away for so long, Orton seemed to use this performance as a re-introduction to her as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer. From the reception to this concert, however, one would suspect that perhaps it might not have been needed. Most seem to have not forgotten at all. With a voice like that, how could you?