Beth Orton @ Union Chapel, London, 5 Dec
An un-necessarily nervy Beth Orton is welcomed by friends in the festive and unusually cosy Union Chapel tonight. Union Chapel looks its best at this time of year: heavy red velvet curtains behind the stage and a simple tall Christmas tree are augmented by the smells of hot chocolate. It is sheer pleasure to be wrapped up in hats and scarves, gently warmed by heaters and softly relaxed by beautiful music. Tonight’s showcase of songs from most recent record, Sugaring Season is sold out. That alone should have assured Orton of her reception this evening. Being backed by collaborator and man-of-the-moment “The Nico Muhly” [as Orton refers to him] and her husband Sam Amidon should also have dissipated some of those nerves which disrupt and jar this evening.
Orton interrupts herself in set [and album] opener ‘Magpie’ to ask for a fix to be made at the sound desk. She apologises; she doesn’t want to be a “diva”, as she terms it, and yet this irritation with the sound mixing continues throughout the night. Despite the interruptions the new songs are magical and light. Orton manages to pull back from the brink to deliver great performances, and the audience tonight are eager to lap up anything she gives them. ‘Last Leaves of Autumn’ stands out with its gorgeous refrain of “I’m ready for a first time feeling”. A reworking of a William Blake poem, Poison Tree, also deserves a special mention for its delicate mix of traditional and contemporary tones. The folk influence of Orton’s mentor Bert Jansch [Pentangle] is perhaps present in this song, which Orton describes as a “collaboration between me and the dead.”
More strident moments come across in the jaunty ‘roaring twenties’-esque ‘See Through Blue’, for which Nico Muhly provides piano accompaniment, and classic Orton songs such as ‘She Cries Your Name’. After this latter is greeted by whoops, Orton herself says, “I don’t know why I am so nervous tonight.” Later on an audience member tries to counter her nerves by shouting that she “sounds great.” Eventually Orton seems to relax. The encore section is perhaps a reflection of this as she essentially performs a jukebox set, taking requests from the delighted audience. The audibly heartfelt support from the assembled fans belies Orton’s on-stage hand-wringing. Tonight was a lovely set of well-crafted songs. Beth Orton should feel proud.