Beth Orton arrived on stage in jeans, a white oxford shirt and a yellow tie with brown dots—looking like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be Annie Lennox or Annie Hall. As it turned out, she was plenty of both, alternating personalities between the über-confident, golden-throated ex-Eurythmic, and the sexy, goofy and self-conscious Woody Allen heroine. And while Beth played both parts perfectly, it was tough to figure which personality was genuine (if either), or if that question even matters.
Orton’s show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. marked the final show of her mini-tour before the release of her third album, Daybreaker, next month, and it may mark the beginning of her transition from trip-hop diva to Americana queen. Orton’s roots are with the textured beats of the Chemical Brothers, but her new songs indicate a slight return from electronica to a more traditional, English-style songwriting.
Saturday’s sold-out crowd consisted largely of young, upwardly mobile couples—couples of all persuasion and variety, but with the common characteristic of stylish shoes and expensive eyewear (if any). Almost all 1,200-plus of them tried to politely jostle to the front of the room at precisely 11:10, moments before the band took their instruments and Beth sauntered out. After a quick “Hello, Washington”, Beth led the band into “Paris Train”, from the upcoming Daybreaker album. The crowd was quickly hypnotized, swaying and head-bobbing to the thrump-thrump of the upright bass.
It’s courageous to open a show with a song most of the crowd has never heard, but Beth had an ace or two in the hole. The sound was literally perfect. Beth strummed an acoustic, and was joined by a violinist, cellist, second guitar player, acoustic bass player, keyboard player and drummer. There were a lot of musicians up there, yet every instrument sounded clear and full in the mix. And the band was dead on. This show was the last of 17 gigs, and the band was clearly locked-in, and the beneficiary of the 9:30 Club’s fantastic acoustics. Beth’s vocals danced over the tasteful string section and the deep-pocket rhythm section, and the crowd nodded their heads to every hit of the soprano snare. “Paris Train” is a beautiful, blissful tune, and the band seemed to lean back and let the music breathe, while Beth showed off that voice that can obviously give so much more, but never seems to feel the need. Of course, she uses it perfectly every time.
When the opening tune ended, the crowd went about as wild as a Beth Orton crowd can get, and Beth grinned sheepishly (or maybe a little smugly), chuckling at the yells of “I love you” and “marry me, Beth”. “I’ve got a joke for you,” Beth began, and then, after a few guffaws and false starts, she told a whippersnapper of a tale about a guy who brings a giraffe into a bar and gets him drunk on tequila shots. Orton had the bit down pat, complete with head tosses for every shot, and neck-wobbling for every giraffe swallow. The joke was corny as hell, but Beth (here, in Annie Hall-mode) seemed well aware that this little quip was simply a great excuse to let everyone know just how cute, sweet and fun she really is. I know I bought it!
She continued this routine for most of the night, oscillating between heartbreaking (but somehow uplifting) songs like “Sweetest Decline” and “Galaxy of Emptiness”, and quick flirtations with the crowd and band. Although it’s almost in the job description, it always surprises me when professional songwriters tell jokes or charm the crowd with anecdotes or playful sarcasm. Are they afraid of coming across as too serious, or do they think the crowd needs to recognize them as “real people” who don’t just sit in their room and create beautiful music all day and night? Beth, for example, prefaced “Central Reservation”—one of her biggest hits (and a pretty heavy tune)—with the comment “I really need a piss!” It got a great laugh from everyone, but the retreat from intimacy (or honesty) seemed a little self-conscious and uncomfortable. Only when Beth shouted, “this is our last show,” (and she said it more than a few times), did she really appear genuinely moved. But even then, it was tough to tell whether she was sad about the end of the tour, happy that it was a success, or just relieved to get it all over with. Most likely, it was all these things.
After playing for about ninety minutes, Beth took a little break, then returned for a three-song encore. Arriving back from the break, Beth fired off a crack about spending the time in the bathroom, and then introduced the encore as a song she sings with Ryan Adams on her upcoming album. The song is “Concrete Sky”, and it offers further proof that Beth is altering her sound a bit, perhaps influenced by Adams’ Heartbreaker and Gold albums, as well as by her friendship with Emmylou Harris, whom she met on the 1997 Lillith Fair tour. Harris also duets with Beth on Daybreaker, which is shaping up to be her most musically diverse and ambitious album to date. Guitar icon Johnny Marr appears on four tracks, and that alone should ensure record sales to half of Britain.
Clearly, Beth Orton has a lot to offer, and she seems eager to experiment with her sound, no matter how successful the style she is changing. Saturday’s show indicates she’s bringing most of her fans along with her. Standing out among Saturday’s largely late 20s crowd was a group of five or six high school girls. The group was unusual partly for its youth (although the 9:30 Club is all ages, all the time), but mostly because the girls had formed a mini, personalized mosh pit, and they were tossing themselves into one another for most of the show, grinning and laughing the whole time. They’d made Beth Orton into their own little Pantera, and weren’t content to just coolly bob and sway to the beats.
After the show, Beth Orton headed back to her native England, and she’ll soon tour Europe for a bit to coincide with the release of Daybreaker. Hopefully, she’ll return to the States in the fall, or sooner, likely selling out some more medium-sized venues and giving us her unique version of folk-rock, trip-hop, Americana, or whatever you want it to be.