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- Beth Orton »
After a succession of intriguing gigs in celebration of Rough Trade's 25th Anniversary, the festivities hit the Union Chapel for a night that showcased the very best in contemporary female-led songwriting. First on the bill was Anjali, whose short set of vocal-led, smoke-saturated breakbeat was an interesting proposition. This being her debut live appearance in the UK, the Anjali live experience failed to live up to the excellence of her self-titled debut album on Wiiija, though the quality of much of her material shone through for much of the set. Her sensuous arrangements would probably be better suited to a dimly lit club than the austerity of the Union Chapel.
Ana Da Silva of cult band The Raincoats turned in a performance that proved both baffling and bewitching in equal measure. Accompanied only by a barely audible electric guitar and a cacophony of taped backing, her songs were uniquely surreal, touching on such pressing topics as lemon tarts and flying over oceans. While occasionally the automated simplicity of her backing tapes proved monotonous, Da Silva was never less than fascinating.
Meanwhile, Monica Queen's history as member of cult Scottish rockers Thrum and her phenomenal vocal contribution to Belle and Sebastian's Lazy Line Painter Jane resulted in high expectations for her set. What resulted never strayed far from traditional Country, a sound either loved or loathed. I am personally quite partial to a spot of lilting Country guitar, and as such Monica's performance was consistently enjoyable. While her musical backing veered dangerously close to bland homogeneity on a few occasions, her soaring vibrato voice was enough to lift the set above the ordinary.
The night continued in a Country vein with a set of joyous hillbilly stomps from Eileen Rose, a rising star in the alt-country/trad country mould. While her music was never complicated by the more cerebral alterations of the Alternative Country brigade, the sheer driven power of the songs and the band was a joy to behold.
While the consistent quality of those providing support to Beth Orton made the task of following such a series of great performances a daunting prospect, Orton predictably topped even the heights of Eileen Rose's hectic set with a performance of understated, minimal folk beauty. Any accusations previously levelled at Orton relating to her occasional coffee-table jazzy tendencies on record seemed irrelevent in a live setting; songs such as Central Reservation, when stripped to the bare bones of acoustic guitar and piano, revealed themselves to be full of eloquent emotion and inventive lyricism while new material aired on the night more than lived up to crowd pleasers such as the disturbingly desolate She Cries Your Name. (perhaps the highlight of the evening.) While Orton's songwriting falls short of lesser known peers such as the superlative Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) or Julie Doiron, all 3 share voices that are wildly variable in range and expression and that draw on the rich history of a multitude of old-time female folk singers from both Britain and the USA. Beth Orton remains a songwriter both rooted in the past and yet utterly modern in approach, and who remains utterly deserving of your admiration.
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