Live review: Beth Orton at Largo
As onstage caveats go, Beth Orton delivered some memorable ones Tuesday at Largo at the Coronet, where the English singer-songwriter kicked off a brief U.S. solo tour with a 90-minute set as endearing as it was uneven.
First, before she'd even played a note, Orton announced that she was "recovering from something dreadful," her eyes twinkling slyly like Vera Farmiga's in "Up in the Air." Later, following a rather yelpy rendition of "Central Reservation," the title track from her 1999 album, she elaborated, explaining that until the night before she'd been on her deathbed thanks to a nasty case of walking pneumonia -- also known, she added, as the boogie-woogie flu.
A "whacking great" antibiotic had prevented her untimely demise, but remnants of her illness lingered; several times Tuesday she was forced to stop in the middle of a song for a ladylike coughing fit.
Health issues no doubt accounted for much of the rambling, rehearsal-like quality of Orton's Largo performance. But a kind of general rustiness also seemed to define the show: Though she spent much of the decade from 1996 to 2006 in the music-industry limelight -- if anyone can be described as having been the face of folktronica, it's her -- Orton has receded of late, dedicating most of her time to raising her daughter, who the singer said had just turned 3.
As a result, it was easy to believe her when she responded to a fan's request for her song "Concrete Sky" with the admission that she didn't remember how to play it. And you weren't surprised when she discovered halfway through a cover of the Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child" that she'd forgotten to attach a capo to her guitar.
"Your enthusiasm is waning," she said. "I can hear it." (That wasn't quite true: Assuming the crowd at Largo was representative of her fan base, Orton may enjoy the most patient audience in pop.)
So what made Tuesday's concert more than a basis for a refund request? Orton's self-deprecating stage manner, for one thing. Tall and gawky and not always sure what to do with her hands, she has something of an Olive Oyl essence, which gave her stuttering between-song banter an old-school screwball-comedy charm.
She's an honest wreck too: After she brought out Gillian Welch for a lovely rendition of an untitled new song, Orton gushed that she was so excited to play with Welch that she'd awakened early despite the fact that with her daughter at home with her grandparents, she might've taken the opportunity to sleep in.
There was also, fortunately, some gorgeous music, including "Conceived" -- from Orton's most recent album, "Comfort of Strangers" -- and another unreleased tune that evoked the ruminative West Coast folk-pop of Joni Mitchell's "Blue." (According to the singer's manager, Orton has separated from her longtime record label and is set to begin work on a new album once she decides how to release it.)
Orton warned before the latter selection that given the song's freshness she was bound to mess it up. Almost despite herself, though, she failed to deliver on that promise.
Photo credit: Jame Rector