"I'm handsome," Beth Orton announced onstage at the Largo last night, reaching into her mouth to pull out a cough drop which she shamelessly deposited on the stool beside her. "Walking pneumonia with the boogie-woogie flu" is how the British-born singer songwriter explained the persistent cough that tormented her during her solo show, forcing her to stop and restart songs multiple times. Still, she managed to play a gorgeous hour-long set for an adoring, and forgiving, audience.
At first glance, Orton is beautifully plain. Tall and thin, dressed in skinny blue jeans and platforms with an over-sized plaid shirt and short redwood-brown hair, she could be everyone's girl next door -- privately talented and naturally attractive -- the kind of girl you might spy on from a bedroom window, longing to hear her sing but not wanting to embarrass her with your presence.
She is self-conscious and apologetic, smiling bashfully, her haunting alto voice emerging surprisingly. Hearing Beth Orton sing feels as though you are included in a great secret, her intimate voice delivers words in a strange process of crescendos and decrescendos, swelling to a wail and sinking down to a whisper in the space of a single word.
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It was a rare occasion to see Orton alone on stage, and she said so herself. Until 2006, she played consistently with Ted Barnes, Sean Read, Will Blanchard and Ali Friend, and is known for her collaborations with the Chemical Brothers, William Orbit, Red Snapper and Bert Jansch. Towards the end of the set she invited bluegrass star Gillian Welch onstage to join her in a lullaby that she wrote for her three-year-old daughter, and the two women serenaded the audience with their raw voices and folky guitar chords. "I'm usually onstage with men," she said, relishing the company of another woman.
Orton apologized for the bad timing of her illness, occasionally restarting songs to get a grasp of her wavering voice and visibly concentrating on suppressing a cough. Despite the interruptions, she managed her full, dreamy sound, nailing a gorgeous rendition of the Five Stairsteps' song "Ooh Child." She invited requests halfway through the set and played many of the audiences' favorites from her five solo albums, including "Conceived" and "Feel to Believe."