Beth Orton Puts The Brooding Aside To Rock

Despite reputation for depressive songs, she offers up energetic performance.

NEW YORK --The quietly stark photographs of Beth Orton that appear on Trailer Park, her recent CD, give the impression of a melancholy, brooding young woman. Orton's songs, for the most part melodic and mournful, and similar in spirit to Suzanne Vega's or Postishead's, confirm that image.

Looks can be deceiving.

Performing this past Saturday at New York City's Westbeth Theatre, the 27-year-old British singer betrayed that depressed female stereotype, proving she's got the energy, talent and devilish charm of a true prima donna.

The concert, part of the CMJ Festival, was a sold-out show, attended by a refreshing mix of young twenty-something hipsters, yuppie couples and aging hippies. Music industry types (some in suits, some not), looking a bit dazed at the wall-to-wall crowd filling the Westbeth, struggled to find a place to stand.

There were reported but unconfirmed sightings at the club of Chemical

Brothers' Tom Rowlands, who Orton has worked with, notably on the Exit

Plant Dust CD. Noticeably tall, actor-of-the-moment Vince Vaughn, of

Swingers and Jurassic fame, was a confirmed sighting.

"No, I'm just hearing her for the first time tonight," he said. In fact, many in the crowd that I talked to were either seeing Orton for the first time, aware of the growing hype around her, or had fallen in love with Trailer Park and came to see Orton perform her unique blend of folksy electronica.

"Hello, New York," Orton said softly, as she took the stage. Clad in slim

pants that hung low off her thin hips, and a tank top that exposed her flat

waist, the tall, gangly singer looked sweetly frail as she peered under

her shaggy brown hair out into the crowd.

If she seemed a bit shy at first, by the time she played favorites such as

"Galaxy of Emptiness," "Tangent" and "Touch Me With Your Love," Orton had

command of the stage, joking with audience members, at one point even

tossing a large, yellow inflatable duck to the crowd and generally

basking in their adoration of her.

"We love you Beth," one audience member yelled between songs.

"Oh, I love you," replied Orton enthusiastically gushingly, if not a bit

mockingly.

Sticking to the songs off her album, and tossing in some older ones, Orton

played a set of 15 or so tunes. The slower songs, such as "Tangent" were

speeded-up with the help of guitars and bass (Orton playing guitar on many

of the songs), to provide a more upbeat and energetic show.

Many of the musicians on-stage with Orton had contributed instrumentally to

Trailer Park, including violinist Howard Gott and cellist Sara Wilson, and

their achingly lovely strings were, by far, the strongest accompaniment to

Orton's vocals. Not as strong was the keyboard playing; the clunking and

repetitive chords sounded as if they were coming off a Fisher-Price My

First Piano.

Having a full band behind Orton, whose previous appearance in New York had

been an acoustic performance (at Arlene's Grocery) was a mixed blessing.

They provided a charge that gave the audience and Orton, for that

matter, a tremendous amount of energy. Even though Orton danced and swung

around the stage, it was apparent her vocals were not consistently

strong, either because she wasn't giving it her all, or because she simply

was exhausted during what was her last show of the tour. On songs such as

"Sugar Boy" and "She Cries Your Name," Orton's vocals were noticeably

drowned out by the guitars and bass.

Nevertheless, on solos such as the older songs, "Safety" and "Spotlight," Orton was able to show off her voice, which sounded at times like that of folk icon Joni Mitchell.

For the most part, the crowd was relatively still, content to take in the

complex mix of strings, bass and guitars layered with Orton's lyrical melodies. And while the crowd danced to just a few songs, they were no less enthused, captivated by Orton's chats between sets, jokes with bandmates and girlishly charming behavior.

When someone in the crowd shouted out "Candle In The Wind," the song Elton

John had played that morning at Princess Diana's funeral in England, Orton sang, flatly, a line from the song, which brought much applause. The mention of the Elton John song opened the door for a bit of royal-bashing by Orton.

Before singing "She Cries Your Name," she announced that the song was

dedicated to Diana.

"It's a real shame," said Orton sarcastically. "...It's a real tragedy." With a snicker, she added, "Well, maybe not."

A few in the crowd laughed, but most didn't. After the song ended, Orton yelled an unintelligible comment about fascists. "I just tried to ignore that whole part," one man told me later.

Another rationalized Orton's comments. "With all the attention given to the

royal family and the funeral, there is bound to be backlash."

The truth of the matter was that Orton could have said or done whatever she

wanted to on stage and the audience would continue to adore her. After all, aren't outspoken and bratty rock stars, such as Oasis, always the favorites? Still, all good things must come to an end.

By the second encore, which Orton happily bounded back on-stage for, she

had clearly exhausted her voice.

"I've got no voice left -- but fuck it," she shouted before launching into a

rousing and giddy version of "Live As You Dream." She screeched to get the lyrics out and out they came.

This is the stuff great shows are made of. [Fri., Sept. 12, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]