vendredi, septembre 10, 2004

Beth Orton, Cabot Hall, London

Make yourself at home

By Sam Ingleby

10 September 2004

We're into one of the long tuning sessions that occur intermittently at Beth Orton's gig. Orton and the two guitarists who accompany her are noodling away at their instruments, twiddling and plucking to achieve the right sound, when she starts to giggle. "This is just like a gig at my house," she says, "lots of bad tuning and long silences."

As she strikes up another of her lilting, folksy songs, it's easy to understand what she means. Next to me, a couple sit down and cross their legs; to my left,a gentle slowdance begins. It's testament to Orton's languorous sound and easy on-stage patter that the show achieves such a palpable sense of informality and relaxation.

Initially, such a feeling had seemed unlikely as Orton seemed uncomfortable in her surroundings. Set against a stark, black background she came on stage alone, her frail, wraith-like presence at odds with the hulking, boxy venue that is more often used for corporate dinners than small gigs by acoustic singers. The audience seemed similarly at odds with one another, the expected indie kids, earnestly mouthing every word of the songs standing cheek by jowl with businessmen in suits just having left the office, who preferred to tap their feet. "Tell me if you want anything", she says, "because you're mainly going to hear nothing you know." Some couples look at each other slightly perturbed - was she not going to play their song?

The opening numbers were in the tradition of her folksy, crossover sound from 1996's Trailer Park and 1999's Central Reservation, for which she won a gong at the Brits as best British female, and the venue's maligned acoustics were much in evidence. The sound of clinking bottles, the audience moving around on the hard, wooden floor and security guards walkie-talkies combined to fill the dramatic silences and pauses that abound in Orton's songs with unwanted distraction.

There was a brief moment of panic when she appeared very nervous and unable to tune her guitar ("I've forgotten my alphabet"). But after a successful couple of new songs including "Concrete Sky", co-written with the former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, that showcase Orton's strengths: the gentle, melodic guitar playing and a voice that strengthens or attenuates at appropriate moments, she seems to be getting into it a bit more. She kicks her shoes off and announces that she's dedicating the gig to "My brother and his new girlfriend". When the audience fail to respond she laughs, adding "Well, she looks really nice and I'm a romantic".

Orton's performance is subtle and undemonstrative. She does not consume or demand attention, but as the gig goes on, her way with cadence, both musical and lyrical, creates a wonderful sense of stillness and calm in the audience. The fidgeting is replaced by a sense of serenity, further engendered by the lyrics that in the best tradition of pastoralism make us think wistfully of things gone by. Some of the audience close their eyes, not to sleep, but to enjoy quiet contemplation.

By this stage we are completely under Orton's spell, she glides over any glitches; even forgetting the words to her new songs is laughed away. She tries to nip off early but is called back to perform "Central Reservation", which opens with the evocative lines: "Running down a central reservation in last night's red dress, I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath." And, to huge applause - and no little relief from the couples - she finishes with "She Cries Your Name" and the occasionally maudlin "Just a While." Then she's off, leaving the great corporate hall, and us in her wake, both a little changed.

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