LIVE: Beth Orton – Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Manchester

Having released her debut album almost three decades ago, Beth Orton could be forgiven for resting on her laurels at this point of her career. A set like this, at an intimate venue in one of the UK’s most musical cities, could easy have been a romp through her greatest hits, a celebration of singles that so many people in the room would’ve known and loved. Songs that some of them have cherished for years. But it’s to Beth Orton’s credit that this show wasn’t like that. A few weeks ago, and to little fanfare or critical attention, Beth quietly released what might be her best album so far. Weather Alive is the bringing together of the disparate sounds she has been playing with ever since that first album in 1996, blending her folk influence and storytelling ability with a more electronic element that has always made her stand out. Previously, albums might have switched between the two styles – but on Weather Alive, her many strengths coalesce to create something truly refreshing, daring, and innovative.

And, after seeing her show at RNCM, it feels like Beth knows this. Opening with the album’s first four songs is a perfect way to tell your audience that this is going to be a set that focuses on the new music in the main part, but I doubt that even the most ardent fan of the early albums could be disappointed. From the second Beth and her band take the stage, with only a barely audible hello before the music starts, they are totally in command. It’s enthralling. Beth sits centre stage at the keys, effortlessly controlling her audience with her words, while all around her are almost as impressive musicians on every part of the stage. And whether this was down to the acoustics in the music hall or the sound technicians that Beth brings with her, I have rarely heard live music that sounds so crisp and clear – you can hear every nuance, every note – and every musician has the perfect weight in the mix.

Obviously, this would all be for nothing if the new songs weren’t so fucking good. But ‘Weather Alive’ is the perfect, transfixing opener – letting things unfurl slowly, giving us an early hint of the magic to come. ‘Friday Night’ gives us a kick of energy, warming up the crowd. And then ‘Fractals’ is a full release, the most creative and hypnotic song of the entire evening. Later in the set, we have equally impressive renditions of other album highlights – ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Arms Around A Memory’ stand out. And by the end of the night, we’ve heard all of the new album live – something that I am guessing most attendees wouldn’t have been expecting. In a year when we have seen many 90s and 00s acts come back with albums that we wish they hadn’t bothered with, it says a lot that the crowd are so drawn in to a set which is 60% new music.

That being said, we do of course get some of the classics. Central Reservation is the next most represented album, with the title song from that one being another standout from the set. ‘Sweetest Decline’ gets one of the biggest gasps of the evening. For me personally, the best moment that didn’t come from this year’s album came when she played ‘She Cries Your Name’. But, while I’m aware I keep banging this drum, it was definitely during the songs from Weather Alive that this show was at its most impressive. This is the third time I have seen Beth Orton live and she has always been great, but at RNCM, and with this new music, it felt like she had really found a level she had never been at before – this was a confident, powerful performance by someone who seems to have come to the most creative section of their career at a time when we might have assumed they’d be getting ready to cash in with a greatest hits and some album anniversary tours. Thankfully that isn’t what she’s done, because this was live music at its finest.

Words by Fran Slater

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