Ben Sloan, who recently opened for Beth Orton at The Birchmere and played drums in her band, admitted to some trepidation when he took the stage. The Birchmere, he said, is “an intimidating place to perform weird electronic music,” in part because it’s so nice.
Ben’s not entirely wrong: The Birchmere trends towards roots acts — country, blues, folk, and singer-songwriters. But Beth Orton is kind of unique in what she does, in mixing acoustic folk traditions with electronica in a blend that some have called “folktronica.”
Born in Norfolk, England, in 1970, Orton has been making records for nearly 30 years, and those records have covered a lot of territory. She’s also collaborated with major electronic artists like the Dust Brothers, on Exit Planet Dust. Early releases like Trailer Park (1996) and Central Reservation (1999) emphasized electronica, but she also released an EP between them, Best BIt (1997), a collaboration with jazz-folk artist Terry Callier. After 2002’s Daybreaker, which became her most commercially successful album, she shifted gears and released the entirely acoustic albums Comfort of Strangers (2006) and, several years later, Sugaring Season (2012). More recently, she has returned to her beginnings in electronica with 2016’s Kidsticks and last year’s Weather Alive.
Watch the official music video For “Weather Alive” by Beth Orton on YouTube:
I’m very selective about electronic music: Most of it doesn’t work for me. I’m a lyrics-first guy, and a lot of electronic music doesn’t emphasize, or even have lyrics; it’s about the sound, about innovating with the machines. I can respect that and I can usually tell when it’s done well, but most of it just isn’t for me. But Orton’s music emphasizes lyrics and songcraft, and the songs are extremely well written. On Sept. 11, her performance in The Birchmere emphasized the songs, while flavoring them — lightly, really — with just a dash of keys and synth. This was a full band show, with traditional guitar, bass, and drums.
In addition to her excellent songs, Beth displayed a fine, dry, very British sense of humor. She joked about how we’d go away from the show thinking, “She’s taller than I realized,” and she’s not wrong, as I definitely thought this. I hadn’t really thought about how tall she’d be; I guess one sort of expects people to be about average height, and is surprised when they’re not.
One of the surprising elements of this show was that we got two solo acoustic numbers: “Pass In Time,” during the set, and “Lonely,” which opened the encore. She kicked off with the title track from the latest record, Weather Alive, followed by “Friday Night” and “Paris Train,” before going way back with “Central Reservation.”
The band came back and played “Haunted Satellite,” followed by “Forever Young,” which is her own tune, and not a cover of either Bob Dylan or Alphaville. (As John Hartford once said, “There’s only so many words,” and, eventually, things get repeated.) The rest of the set included “Arms Around A Memory,” “Someone’s Daughter,” “Mystery,” and “Heart of Soul,” and ended with “Fractals.” For her encore, after doing “Lonely” solo acoustic, she did her biggest hit, “Stolen Car” (again: this is her song, and not the oft-covered Bruce Springsteen classic), finishing the night with “Call Me The Breeze.”
Beth Orton is a unique artist, and, if you’re into more conventional music, she’s the ideal place to start exploring more experimental, electronic work. The emphasis on conventional song structure and lyrics makes this music more accessible for people who are used to that; many of my friends who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to a song with synths have great affection for her.