Seeing Beth Orton after so many years, back to her loveable form, is a blessing. Seeing her in this beautiful and tiny chapel hidden in the back streets of Soho, just sixty or so in the audience, is a dream.
Tonight is one of those special gigs that comes around once in a blue moon. Curated by Andrew Weatherall, Orton and support Pete Molinari are playing the second in a series of three gigs for the House of St Barnabas, a charity that ran a homeless shelter in the very chapel we sit in. Now, to bring in some cash for the charity, the chapel and its adorning pretty rooms are re-opening as a private members club.
As Beth walks past her small crowd, perched on cushions on a cold stone floor, she’s visibly nervous. Her instantly recognisable gravelly tremolo in her voice shakes even more than usual, probably not helped by the really rather nippy temperature in this Godly house.
There are candles flickering in every direction and an ornate Jesus hanging above the alter, staring down on an adoringly bumbling Beth, cursing and apologising to the looming Lord after every song. It’s a sweet innocence that she’s never lost throughout her fame or age.
Tonight, playing songs from her wonderful new album ‘Sugaring Season’ and her well known back catalogue, she’s joined by husband and American folky Sam Amidon on guitar and violin. His voice is a beautiful accompaniment to her breathy tone, especially in ‘Poison Tree’, where the harmonies blend so wonderfully together.
But tonight is all about Beth and her voice, her songs, and her chat is just lovely.
‘Magpie’, the opener on her new album and packed full of strings and percussion, is stripped down tonight and magical for it, while ‘Dawn Chorus’ is tender and heart-breaking, although showing the nerves more than her other numbers. She’s playing her new toy – a 1940s acoustic with a tone like honey. “It’s like being in a new relationship and we’re not quite sure of each other yet,” she says as she gets in a tangle and mutters a few more “fucking fucks” before apologising to the suspended Jesus.
Her playing sits effortlessly beneath her voice, somewhere between Sandy Denny and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, but with more than a hint of soul in songs like ‘Last Leaves of Autumn’, on Rhodes instead of guitar.
The night ends with some of her more classic tracks, including ‘She Cries Your Name’ and a dedication to dear friend Terry Callier, the soul and folk artist who died on 28th October and who found success in his later years by working with such names as Beth and Massive Attack.
Finally, at special request of Andrew Weatherall, Beth plays ‘Ooh Child’, a cover of the ‘70s soul song about hard life getting easier – it’s a poignant end for the charity, but also a simply superb song to end the night.
Words by Gemma Hampson