Live: Beth Orton @ El Rey Theatre, 10.23.12

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Of all her albums, none of Beth Orton’s releases embrace analog beauty like Sugaring Season. The new album, only her fifth, is my favorite of her considerable catalog and her strongest collection since 1999’s Central Reservation. Its lush arrangements evoke the cozy beauty of artists from Nick Drake to Judy Collins (and the great Bert Jansch, an Orton mentor), putting aside her electronic tangents for the sound of vintage craft. Orton’s recordings have often been reflective of her collaborators, a list that includes William Orbit, Ryan Adams and Comfort of Strangers producer Jim O’Rourke, and she’s found a potent assistant in folk traditionalist Sam Amidon — her recent husband and an equally capable musical partner.

He appeared at several points during Orton’s otherwise solo acoustic El Rey show, adding the easy clarity of his vocals to Orton’s fireside crackle. Her voice has always been her most powerful instrument, with a husky quiver that steps between emotional revelation and formal vibrato. She was at her best when he stood beside her, gaining energy as their guitars and voices intertwined. “How great is Sam?” she smiled as he left the stage, never betraying their relationship status but beaming all the same. It was written in her face, and in songs such as “Dawn Chorus,” a “Northern Sky”-style effort as tender as a mother’s touch.

The set didn’t linger on only the new material. She reached back to Trailer Park for “Sugar Boy” and “Galaxy of Emptiness” and made this writer very happy with a lovely take on “Sweetest Decline.” Amidon was a fine replacement for Adams on the harmonies of “Concrete Sky,” offering affable banter as Orton tuned her guitar. Still, it was in Sugaring Season stand-out “Last Leaves of Autumn” that she addressed the obvious: “I’m ready for a first-time feeling,” she sang, her husband standing off stage, invisible in the shadows. Beaming all the same.

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