Published Oct 17, 2012Taking a Vancouver stage for the first time in more than six years, English singer-songwriter Beth Orton was greeted by a bouquet of white lilies, gifted from a gentleman up front, which she placed on a stool next to her cup of tea. Orton declared that she was going to start off with some oldies before moving to the stuff the crowd didn't know, namely material from her recent Sugaring Season album, and she kept her word.
As Orton started into "Heart of Soul" from her previous album, 2006's Comfort of Strangers, the distinctiveness of her voice became clear. In a falsetto, it seemed as though her voice might disintegrate like a moth's wings at any moment, but she was deeply evocative in her comfort zone, tempered by the waves of life experience she has tread since last she appeared on these shores, including marriage, motherhood, being dumped by her label and entering her 40s.
Armed only with two dry acoustic guitars and a mic, Orton progressed to perform "Touch Me with Your Love" from 1996's Trailer Park before moving to "Magpie" from Sugaring Season. Oddly enough, her falsetto seemed to firm up for the latter, newer song, enhancing her aura of conviction. Though she would return to older material later — care of a call for requests that led to a well-received version of "Stolen Car" from 1999's Central Reservation and, for the encore, that album's highly demanded title track — she generally appeared more confident in her new material.
"Something More Beautiful" showcased her sublime lyricism and subtle delivery, while "State of Grace" emphasized her droning, circular picking style. "Candles" was the clear highlight, though. Stripping away the strings, drums and electric piano of the recorded version to reveal its heart-wrenching and haunting core, the crowd got so quiet during this song, one could hear people selectively cough on the balcony at the back from up near the stage.
Ultimately, one of the most striking things about Orton's set was how free of pretension it was. Appearing in a loose, white shirt and blue jeans, with her hair somewhat mussy, she sheepishly made small talk about her tour details and complimented the city, noting its many sidewalk dwellers, occasionally mumbling away from the mic. She claimed "Poison Tree" was co-written with William Blake, whether he liked it or not, and when she, perhaps karmically, messed up a lyric, she admitted to it, kept calm and carried on without missing a beat.