How do you breathe life into folk rock? How do you stand out in a field as over-saturated as that of the singer-songwriter? Well, you can try constructing some MTV-style persona to help sell your songs (John Mayer anyone?). Or, if you’re Beth Orton, you could take another road: distinguish yourself by playing deftly written tunes and singing them in an arrestingly ethereal, husky voice.
Over the years, Orton has collaborated with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris, and Terry Callier. On her latest release, Comfort of Strangers, however, the focus is on Orton’s voice alone—pared with sparse, brooding pianos and sunny guitars. Gone are the moody electronic flourishes and dance-club sounds that marked her initial entrée into the world of pop music. In their place, Orton sketches songs, poems, and narratives that are tinged with the folksy vibe of a traditional troubadour.
Orton stepped on stage at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in the stock stance of the folksinger, an acoustic guitar on her back and harmonica rack around her neck. She began with “Absinthe”, a track from her new album that turns on the quiet guitar pluck, an echoing drumbeat, and a plaintive piano. With subdued ease, her wispy voice danced and floated across the hushed melodies and drowsy rhythms provided by backing musicians playing acoustic guitars, piano, electric bass, and drums. The crowd—a coterie of Orton acolytes—responded with a loyal and vocal appreciation: numerous “We love you’s” were proffered with timidity at each song’s end.
Finally rising above quiet restraint, Orton and her band launched into “Conceived”, the first single from Comfort of Strangers, a song in which Orton aggressively strums her guitar to counter the ringing riffs of the electric guitar. Orton’s vocals echoed the up-tempo beat as they perambulated with sinewy grace. Having teased the audience with a rocking groove, Orton retreated back to a place that was “safe in your arms”, musing, “Home is where the heartbreak wraps cold around my bones”. The melancholic hum of the recorder, the tragic timbre of Sean Read’s piano, and the funerary march of drum and bass matched the ache in Orton’s declarations.
Orton’s skill as a singer and performer is in her pacing. She has mastered the rise and the fall, the catch and release. On this evening, she bookended the rocking beat of the venomous Fleetwood Mac-esque “Shadow of a Doubt”, the rousing, bluesy downbeat of “Heart of Soul”, and the kicked-up, “give the drummer some” shake of “Shopping Trolley” with the brooding quiet of “Comfort of Strangers”. Even within songs, Orton shapes and skewed the mood, whether it was through her halting, breaking vocals in the solo acoustic “Central Reservation” or the a cappella sha-la-la-las in “God Song”.
Concerts by singer-songwriters run the risk of dragging on and on. After all, how many different ways are there to strum a guitar or readjust a capo? Most artists only last so long. But then, within the narrow streets and alleys of folk rock, Beth Orton stands head and shoulders above the undistinguished (and undistinguishable) voices. Over the past 10 years she’s played with a consistently unique voice, channeling the spirits of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, and Neil Young. With a catalog that’s memorable in its lyric and lilt, its rhythm and rhyme, its melody and message, it’s a wonder that diet soda singer/songwriters like Jack Johnson don’t kneel before her in awe. Of course, that wouldn’t jive with his “personality,” and anyway, she could probably give a toss. After all, all the schtick in the world can’t buy you substance.