Beth Orton

Beth Orton @ 02 Academy Birmingham, 7th October 2022

Last time I saw Beth Orton, she was supporting Alanis Morrissette at the Utilita Arena and doing a splendid job in such a large venue, during the set she promised the release of a new album and tour in October. Here she is, in a much smaller room, plugging her new album Weather Alive is self-produced and choosing to play in its entirety.  

She opens with the first track from the album also entitled Weather Alive, with restrained delicacy she draws an attentive audience closer to the stage to experience an exploration into folktronica to create soundscapes of the weather. Sporadic bursts of saxophone with subtle drum patterns and repetitive lyrical motifs produce a piece that has a sense of improvisation about it. 

Orton’s musical strength has always come from her vocal fragility that she exploits with lyrical content that exposes the listener to an array of images and emotions.   As this is the first night of the tour you can see there are sound issues on stage with lots of hand gestures from all the musicians and between songs, Orton firmly expresses what balance she requires in the monitors. As a member of the audience we experience a number of extreme squeals of feedback which impact the atmosphere trying to be created.  Luckily, the levels are sorted fairly swiftly and the sound of the different instruments work to produce the richness presented on the record. 

Moving away from her earlier albums, Beth Orton plays keyboards throughout this first part of the set which is dedicated to the new album. The gentle rolling drum pattern of Friday Night captures the dreamy essence of the song, enhanced by beautiful backing harmonies and its uncliched, catchy chorus that makes it a stand out track on the album. Following the album track listing, the syncopated bass line of Fractals breaks out producing a song that would have been more suited to an underground French jazz bar than the soulless space of the Academy. It is a lesson in musicianship with the complex rhythms and shifting layers of instrumentation throughout. Haunted Satellite sees Orton utilise clapping as a musical instrument to add to the free form aspect of the song, unfortunately the sound issues have returned which interrupt the introduction and opening verse. 

Returning to the ethereal, dreamlike state with Forever Young, it could have easily held a place on a trip hop album or crossed the line into slightly dull, however, Beth’s sensitivity and simple piano pattern theme ensure this is a beautiful extended piece. Possibly the strongest track on the album, Lonely sees Beth play solo keyboard where her soul is truly exposed even mentioning the loss of parents at an early age. The dynamics of the vocals bring a greater emotion to an achingly alluring piece. Continuing with the tranquil atmosphere, Arms Around A Memory brings the double bass to the forefront, as the drums push the pace along and wordless backing vocals break up the cleverly constructed monotony. The final track on the album and this section of the set is the lengthy and spacious Unwritten. The subtle drums and gradual inclusion of more instruments are a fitting end to a soothing fifty minutes. The live performance has added a further dimension to the listening experience of the album. 

After a brief time off the stage, Beth returns, picks up an acoustic guitar and starts to tune it, responding amusingly to someone’s comments. This segment of the performance is dedicated to the well-known tracks from her back catalogue starting with Stolen Car. It is hard to believe this song is 23 years old as it holds its own as a phenomenal indie-folk piece of music. Sticking with this period in her songwriting, Orton is joined on stage by the bass guitarist for Central Reservation. The vocal performance on Weather Alive incorporates delicacy and imperfection, exploring different qualities of her voice whereas Central Reservation sees Orton present a stronger sound vocally. 

The band returned to the stage to try something new, a version of Where Do I Begin, a song that Orton sang on in collaboration with The Chemical Brothers. Needless to say, this is an epic version that has the audience moving and singing along, some with their hands in the air in appreciation. The performance draws to a close with the exquisite She Cries Your Name, that incorporates some magnificent double bass melodies throughout and, after a restart to get the pace right, Call Me The Breeze. This song is lyrically simple yet so beautifully constructed that it has maximum impact. 

It was a real pleasure to see a full Beth Orton set after the taster earlier in the year, her unique vocal style and ear for instrumental layering and soundscapes is second to none.


Review: Toni Woodward

photograph courtesy of SonicPR.


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