Live Report: Beth Orton

Bimbo's 365 Club, San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, September 8, 1998

What a difference three years make. In 1995, Beth Orton was a little-knowntwenty-five-year-old singer chosen to lay down an airy vocal accompaniment on"Alive: Alone" from the Chemical Brothers' debut album, Exit PlanetDust. That bit part led to the release of her critically acclaimedfull-length debut, Trailer Park, in '96 -- a record that found her equally in command with an acoustic guitar as she was amid the full sonic bombast of the Brothers.

Fans of both sounds came out to pack the swank Bimbo's 365 Club, much to the self-effacing Orton's amazement. After opening with "Best Bit" (from the recently released EP of the same name) to thunderous applause, the lanky Orton seemed taken aback. "It's embarrassing to sing your own songs," she demurred, as if only upon hearing the applause did she realize that the very personal lyrics she sang were being heard by people other than herself.

Joined by Ted Barnes on acoustic guitar, Orton wove an alluring tapestry of story songs for seventy-five minutes, announcing each by name and appearing charmingly shocked that people knew her material enough to shout out requests. "You know that?" she questioned in her thick Cockney accent, her neck retreating into her shoulders when an audience member called for "Spotlight." The affable Orton honored most of the requests tossed her way, taking time in between numbers to laugh at herself, and catch her breath from an earlier evening spent "enjoying some fine wine, fine food, and a bit of the gout."

If Orton was indeed enjoying a giddy red wine buzz, she channeled that feeling into her songs, inducing the same effect in the crowd. Dipping equally into material from Trailer Park, Best Bit and her next album (due out in January), Orton kept the mood warm and mellow, softly strumming her acoustic guitar while Barnes augmented the sound with finger picking and non-intrusive leads. Like Barnes, she sat throughout the show and remained largely motionless, save for the cathartic climax of "Sugar Boy" in which she began stamping her feet to the lines "I'm never gonna lay down and die for you." The crowd caught fire upon the song's denouement, as Orton proclaimed, "Now that deserves a drink!" hoisting her glass of wine to the crowd, which responded in kind.

Orton's vocal command, namely her ability to shift between a breathy retreat and a full-fledged wail is reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor after a night of Guinness and cigarettes. This dichotomy proved especially potent on "I Wish I'd Never Seen the Sunshine" and "Safety." Her startling contrast in styles gave voice to Baudelaire's claim that "Beauty is convulsive or nothing at all."

Like O'Connor, Orton reins in a wide array of lyrical imagery, and is mostly successful. She's just as comfortable lamenting grandiose loneliness in "Galaxies of Emptiness" and proclaiming in the new "Devil's Song" that "the devil was my angel but it's not anymore" as she is reveling in the minutiae of a lover's taste left on her fingers in "Central Reservation." At times, however, her lyrical earnestness went over the top and was rendered treacly, as when she asked the oft-pondered "Why do most people always want what they never have?"

Of course, such cliches are hallmarks of inexperience, and with only one full-length album to her credit, Orton certainly qualifies. But those instances are rare, and if the few songs she played from her forthcoming album are any indication, they'll soon be completely forgotten.