Live Review: Beth Orton – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Photo Credit: Iain Fox

Twenty-six years ago an extreme sports TV show inexplicably used to air on a Sunday morning, offering radical insight in to the world of surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding with musical interludes from new artists. The name of the show eludes me, but I’ll never forget seeing Beth Orton for the first time, performing tracks from her album Trailer Park on the veranda of a snowy chalet somewhere in amidst an immaculate mountain landscape. It was an ethereal performance, melancholy yet beautiful and the record weirdly went on to became the soundtrack to an autumn ensconced in the nightmarish catacombs of the video game Doom, becoming forever etched into my musical memory. The connection was cryptic but it somehow seemed to fit.

Fast-forward to 2022 and Beth has returned with arguably her most satisfying album. It’s fair to say it probably wouldn’t be a suitable accompaniment to the sprawling dungeons of Doom anymore; the glorious acoustics of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music prove to be a much more suitable venue for the smoother jazz-infused tones.

There’s still a skittishness about tonight’s performance. Any interaction with the seated crowd is brief and angsty. “I have your shoes” she says to a lady on the front row. “not your actual shoes… a pair like them… anyway…” but when she returns to the music, the performance is sublime. The new album is played in full, although not in chronological order. The red boiler suit she wears suggests a more industrious approach but after the ghostly ‘Weather Alive’ the beauty of ‘Friday Night’ follows. Beth Orton’s vocals have an uncanny knack of seemingly teetering on some emotional fissure, about to crack and fail. On this track these moments only reinforce the emotional impact. Of course her vocals don’t falter; they capture your soul, they take you on a journey and the emotional complexity proves hypnotic. ‘Fractals’ adds a more frisky tone to proceedings. Peter Wareham’s saxophone is impressive in its depth and texture.

This is fundamentally a showcase of a record that perhaps allows Beth Orton to be more… Beth Orton? Previous records were dominated by her associations and collaborations. These new songs appear purer and the few tracks that have been selected to accompany the new record this evening have been re-energised with this in mind. ‘She Cries Your Name’ and ‘Central Reservation’ are the obvious go-to moments and the opening strains of both songs are warmly applauded, but they have been remodeled in-keeping with the Weather Alive aesthetic, which only really shifts during ‘Call Me the Breeze’ which offers a jaunty, upbeat folky farewell before she leaves the stage to a standing ovation. Welcome back Beth Orton!

Review & Images by Iain Fox