BETH ORTON with HEM and ALEX LLOYD at the Phoenix, August 5. Tickets: $22. Attendance: 1,000. Rating: NNNN
Q: what happened to the man who drowned in his bowl of granola? A: He was pulled in by a swift currant!
That was just one of the groan-worthy knee-slappers an unusually jovial Beth Orton flung out at her awestruck admirers at the Phoenix Monday night. It was a welcome change. In recent memory, the gawky Brit has mumbled through performances with a permanently dour expression, punctuating tunes with barely audible whispers of "Thank you."
Sure, she slagged the T.O. journalist who asked -- and why not? -- how this show would differ from her early-June set at the Opera House. But though the material hasn't changed much, Orton's attitude's done a 180. That in itself was worth the ticket price.
Openers Hem provided a similar dose of sweetness during their stellar set. The New York outfit play music that's like a handmade, threadbare antique quilt. Bluegrass and folk influences intertwine on their fragile, layered pedal steel- and mandolin-accented indie lullabies, to breathtaking effect.
Their greatest asset, though, is singer Sally Ellyson's un-fucking-believable voice. Take the best parts of Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant and Cat Power's Chan Marshall. Season with a hint of smoky Etta James and mix it up with the weep-inducing haltingness of Lucinda Williams. You still can't come close to replicating the emotional intensity and sheer power of Ellyson's pipes.
Orton's gained confidence in her voice as well. She's whittled off some of the idiosyncratic edge that could verge on grating, and increased her range. Perhaps she's been taking lessons from Emmylou Harris, who guested on Orton's new Daybreaker disc.
Orton soared through almost two hours of primarily new material, with help from a fabulous backing band that included grimacing upright bass phenom Ali Friend and a killer string ensemble.
Orton's newer stuff, fairly dull on the recording, translates a helluva lot better live. Highlights like the Eno-style ambient-inflected title track, an 80s-popified take on Carmella and the stunning twang of God Song held up against her better old songs (a gorgeous, tinkly piano version of Sweetest Decline and the weeper Pass In Time). Orton even threw in a cover of Fred Neil's Dolphins, during the first of two cheery encores.
It's enough to make you wish she'd waited even longer to make Daybreaker or released an album of live recordings.