Pop: Live - Urban angst with a country smile

Beth Orton Shepherd's Bush Empire

You know what sort of gig it's going to be when the audience starts singing Happy Birthday before the first number. Giggling nervously, Beth Orton stares out at us from under her fringe. "This is a bit amazin', innit!?" The fact that her 1996 debut album has gone silver, we ask ourselves? Or her nomination this year for the Mercury Music Prize? Or, indeed, her gold, spangly dress?

She strides on stage like a proactive Cinders who hasn't hung around waiting for some poxy fairy godmother to give her the nod. Still, it's something of a shock to see Beth Orton, the undisputed queen of self-deprecation, as the belle of her own ball.

Throughout, Orton keeps shaking her head, wearing the demeanour of a Jim'll Fix It contestant who never had to go home. Not even a burst of piercing feedback can wipe the grin off her face as she launches into Trailer Park's seductive, dance-inflected folk. The early songs find her brittle but compelling voice a little submerged by her seven-strong backing group, but she responds confidently to the mixing correction. Unfortunately, the twentysomething trendies for whom Beth's ballads are a dinner party treat, chatter away as if the vol-au-vents are about to be served.

Which is to imply that Orton's absorption of US folk and jazz is one dimensional. It's not. Echoes of Joni Mitchell are undeniable, and at one point Orton herself announces self-consciously that Terry Callier, a recent collaborator, won't be able to make it tonight. Banter with the audience, though, suggests that Orton has spent more time listening to Kathy Burke than Dancing Girl, and Orton goes on to prove she's more than the sum parts of her 10-gallon-hat record collection.

By the time she launches into crisp renditions of Sugar Boy and I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine, even the Deep South countrified hitch in her singing voice makes you wonder if she hasn't hailed from Norwich, Texas.

Fittingly for the inner-city pastures of Shepherd's Bush, Orton's neatest trick is to have infused her countrified musical vocabulary of broken hearts and promises with a contemporary sense of urban isolation. Of course, this being Beth Orton, and so it's all done with a smile. Loneliness never looked like so much fun.

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