By Paul Robicheau
Damn straight, English singer/songwriter Beth Orton was back in the room – after a six-year absence.
“I’m back in the room, bitches!” Beth Orton cried to fans at the Crystal Ballroom this past Sunday after correcting a false start to “Arms Around a Memory” from her new album Weather Alive. The melancholy singer can come across as demure, but Orton also can be quite cheeky, especially when she’s at ease with friends — like the intimate, appreciative audience she faced at the near-full Somerville hall. And damn straight, Orton was back in the room – after a six-year absence.
Beyond the pandemic, the English singer/songwriter had been raising children with musician husband Sam Amidon and changed record labels. She also found herself reenergized with a beat-up piano she found at Camden Market. The self-produced Weather Alive marks her first album since 2016’s synth-coated Kidsticks and stands alongside her best works, going back to ’90s landmarks Trailer Park and Central Reservation. It casts immersive, keyboard-washed moods, the singer often sounding submerged in edge-of-consciousness musing. The album clearly resonates for her — she’s been playing all eight of its tracks each night on tour.
After a chit-chat greeting to Boston fans, Orton slid into Weather Alive’s first four songs at a keyboard decorated with Christmas lights. The ghostly title track faded into whispery refrains, and fans recognized “Friday Night” with applause before it locked into a dreamy, flute-bookended shuffle. “Fractals” likewise rode a playfully pulsing bass line and “Haunted Satellite” saw the singer letting her hair down as she shook a wooden rattle. Orton’s backing quintet, featuring fellow keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick, couldn’t quite conjure the album’s luxurious layers. Still, the players honored its subtle balance, keeping focus on the vocal and piano-rooted songs.
Orton shifted to acoustic guitar to dip into Central Reservation for “Pass in Time” and “Sweetest Decline,” where she flexed her aching voice in a solo start before Stephen Patota’s atmospheric slide guitar surged into the mix. “Arms Around a Memory” found extra verve after its false start, capped by forceful drum fills and ribbony sax before the also-new “Forever Young” unspooled its beautiful spell. Broderick’s Eastern-tinged cello bowing cued “She Cries Your Name,” a bit more muscular than its version on Trailer Park, with a skittering beat from drummer Ben Sloan. “Central Reservation” made another nostalgic splash on acoustic guitar before Orton more hoarsely burrowed into Weather Alive’s minimalist closer “Unwritten.”
The singer loosened the format in a three-song encore. She began alone at her electric piano for the night’s final new song. Fittingly, it was “Lonely,” where she trailed that word into a resolute mantra. After the old deep track “Blood Red River” and a few shouted requests, Orton chimed “I’ll do ‘Stolen Car,’” bypassing her setlist-plotted “Call Me the Breeze” from 2012’s Sugaring Season to close the 80-minute show with a fifth song from Central Reservation.
A second helping from Trailer Park might have been more warranted (two shows later in Toronto, she reportedly sprung that album’s folky cover of the Ronettes’ “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”). But “Stolen Car” oddly remains Orton’s most streamed track on Spotify. In any case, it was nice to see the English songstress in a place of newfound popularity, basking in the glow of old and new friends.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.