Cowell Theater, Fort Mason
San Francisco, CA
March 24, 2008
Beth Orton: Speakeasy Poet
In 1984, I saw Rickie Lee Jones perform at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was still in her wandering poet troubadour phase and the audience was populated with young hipsters- beards and ponytails, Annie Hall wannabees with scarves and berets. It was a demographic that I didn’t know existed in the Midwest in the 1980’s - at a time when MTV’s New Wave, the English Beat, ABC, Spandau Ballet, et al, were dominating the musical scene and everyone wore pastels and leg warmers. Lord, it was a difficult decade to live through. However, seeing Rickie Lee Jones, I felt that I had accidentally wandered into a gathering of the musical cognoscenti. There was meaningful music still being created that was not dependent on clever (or not so clever) videos. Seeing Beth Orton perform at the Cowell Theater at FortMason in San Francisco was a trip back in time. Both because she, like Rickie Lee Jones in the 80s, seems to be an artist out of step with the current music promotion noise machine, and because she draws the same audience of hep-cats in-the-know that makes you feel like you are in on the secret, in possession of a closely-guarded password to a Speakeasy performance.
This may sound somewhat redundant since the concert was in San Francisco. A city that is not only the very embodiment of the hipster ethos but is also the progenitor of the whole Beat movement that generated the very term. Nevertheless, I felt like I was in a hip bubble within a hip bubble at the Cowell Theater. And I had plenty of time for reminiscing since Beth started over half an hour late. Eventually, though, she did take the stage.
While Beth Orton may have evolved into a fairly straightforward folk singer, she began her career in electronica-flavored music and has been described as writing and performing "folktronica" music by some critics- which is all to say that she has her own unique voice and sound despite playing acoustic based, midtempo songs that characterize the new folk music scene. Nevertheless, her acoustic versions of the songs she played in San Francisco owed as much to Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell as to any contemporary artist. Her latest albums have been largely confessional songs of longing and devotion with the additional flavor of British, self-effacing insecurity. And her performance insecurities were also quite evident at the Cowell Theater where she restarted three or four songs after having moments of panic-induced memory lapses for which she apologized profusely.
However, when the songs took over, they seemed inspired. The melodies are light and playful and memorable and her lyrics are thoughtful and poetic. In many ways, the melodies seem as if they were always meant to be and Beth is simply their conduit to existence. Her lyrics also display a level of thoughtful eloquence that seemed to escape Beth when apologizing for her memory lapses. Her between-song banter largely consisted of stuttered pleas for forgiveness punctuated by ‘bullocks’ and ‘bloody hells’ after forgetting a lyric or chord and then blaming the whole mess on her recent motherhood and resulting absence from live performances. This was charming, appealing to an audience of anglophiles, but persisted a bit too long.
Despite all this and the incredibly short duration of the show, just over one hour, it was a very pleasant evening with a gifted songwriter who doesn’t get near the attention or praise that she deserves.
Songs to check out: Someone’s Daughter, Conceived, Heartland Truckstop, Central Reservation.