IN TUNE: “Bollocks!” Beth Orton shouted, stopping halfway through her final song — a cover of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” — last night at the marvelous South Orange PAC.
“Pretend that didn’t happen,” Orton asked the crowd. Then she started over.
The adoring audience had already forgiven no fewer than a half-dozen similar gaffes that began to add up as the show went on.
Artists with more raucous tunes can barrel through mistakes that often go unnoticed. But Orton’s canon of gentle, soulful gems are delicate – and so is she, to the point that last night’s goofs clearly flustered the folktronic singer-songwriter.
She didn’t say as much, but Orton’s head might not have been clear: She sucked on a lozenge and sipped tea throughout the performance, often cleared her throat, and at one point stopped a song dead in its tracks, threw her head back and literally hocked.
A daytime cold medicine might make it easier to breathe, but it can also mess with your concentration – especially after back-to-back nights in New York.
The show also came amid a grueling touring schedule that began in February, covering parts of the U.S. and Australia and much of the UK, continuing with shows tonight in Woodstock, tomorrow night at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett and another set of two shows in two nights, first in Philly and then in Washington, DC, beginning Tuesday.
Although dressed in tiny, cuffed shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and silver ballet slippers, Orton asked the SOPAC crowd near the end of the show, “Is it hot in here?”
“Can you hear that?” she asked at another point, preoccupied with what apparently was some type of noise from her monitor that those down front didn’t notice.
Make no mistake: Elizabeth Caroline Orton still has an incredible voice, one of the most distinctive ever in pop music. If she does have some type of ailment, it’s even more remarkable that she sang so strongly and clearly.
Although known for a particularly clipped style of phrasing, Orton can also belt it out, sustain melodic cries of anguish (on the soaring “Sugar Boy,” for instance) and out-Adele Adele – such as when she slid behind the electric piano and slid through a steamy “Last Leaves of Autumn,” from last year’s “Sugaring Season” album.
Orton was mesmerizing from the opener, walking onstage without introduction or word, setting down an orange-covered setlist journal onto a table with her tea and launching into a rearranged, a capella version of “Pieces of Sky” from the 2006 “Comfort of Strangers” album.
Her command continued through several songs, including another tune from “Sugaring Season,” the Celtic-flavored “Poison Tree,” which had its circa-1800s feel boosted by the backing vocals and haunting fiddle of talented sideman Sam Adimon.
For an achingly gorgeous “Concrete Sky,” Adimon and Orton harmonized beautifully while playing a skin-tight double lead on their acoustics. Near the end, however, she suddenly unleashed a jarring laugh — first blaming Adimon and then herself for a slight misstep instead of simply continuing on.
For all the considerable talent of Orton and her accompanist, her sloppiness eventually became distracting, especially when interspersed with several instances of fret buzz as she wrestled with what she proudly said is her newest guitar.
I’d never presume to speak for anyone, but at times it seemed Adimon’s face betrayed frustration. He also left the stage a couple of times later in the show — which could have easily been taken as part of the act had Orton not wondered aloud where and why he’d suddenly gone.
Left alone, Orton became insecure, almost withdrawn. She spoke in whispers at times, a distinct difference from when I’d seen her a year or so ago at Joe’s Pub. Often referring to her book, she said several times that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to play next, tainting some of the subsequent choices. At times, she simply considered her feet.
The audience kept up her spirits, though. Folks shouted out requests and warmly urged Orton to play whatever she liked.
That’s the kind of venue SOPAC is. Few performance houses are as intimate, acoustically brilliant and customer-friendly. If you’re a folk, blues or roots music fan, it’s the exact theater you would design.
As if that weren’t enough, the funky musical palace dovetails with a mini-movieplex in a thriving downtown district that not only has plenty of free parking but a good amount of diverse restaurants for every proverbial budget. Each SOPAC staffer welcomes you as if into his or her home.
Artists clearly get as much out of it as the listeners. NJPAC and BergenPAC seem cavernous compared to this more discerning, detail-oriented South Orange counterpart.
“It’s like playing in your front room,” Orton told the crowd, marveling at the intimacy.
Leaving “Stolen Car” out of the set apparently bothered none of the attendees. However, Orton did lovely renditions of other familiar favorites from her breakout 1999 album, including the title song, “Central Reservation,” “Sweetest Decline,” and the heart-rending “Pass In Time,” a song about her mother’s death, which was passionate, powerful and – yes – perfect.
She received warm applause and sincerest “thank you”s, and was genuinely grateful for the appreciation.
If she’s ill and playing the trouper, I hope Beth Orton’s feels better soon. I also hope we get to see her come ‘round again once she does.
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