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The Soloist: Beth Orton at Lilith Fair at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Aug. 3

August 9, 2010

You wouldn’t expect Beth Orton to be the strongest act by far at this year’s Lilith Fair at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Tuesday. She’s never had the commercial impact of festival founder Sarah McLachlan, the Dixie Chicks (two-thirds of who performed this year as the Cort Yard Hounds), or Lilith first-timer Sara Bareilles. Nor does Orton have the hipness quotient of Cat Power or Nneka, who also appeared. Nor is Orton a promising up-and-comer such as Lissie or Corrin Campbell, who also took their turns. To lengthen the odds even more, Orton was the only artist to perform alone—and she did so in the middle of the afternoon on one of the two small side stages at the top of the lawn.

Yet Orton delivered a set charged with the kind of drama missing from the other sets. Here were songs that refused to settle for easy answers but instead explored the push-and-pull between what we should do and what we can do. Many were the singers who advised their listeners to leave behind their bad relationships as if that were the easiest thing in the world. Orton was the only who asked why she—and so many like her—couldn’t “let it go,” as she did on “Someone’s Daughter.” Many were the singers who urged their listeners to pursue their dreams. Only Orton asked how one can “keep your dream alive” in the face of so many setbacks, as she did on “Conceived.” Many were the singers who declared that love would outlast all obstacles, but when Orton sang, “How long can this love remain?” on “She Cries Your Name,” she seemed as uncertain of the answer as her listeners.

The tall, lanky British redhead in the shoulderless, flower-print blouse and faded jeans was accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar. With her thumb and forefinger, she finger-picked tumbling arpeggios and warbled her sprightly melodies on top. But whenever her conversational vocals reached an awkward collision between expectations and reality, a little catch in her throat, a sort of gasp or gulp, signaled that flickering moment when a worldview is being readjusted. On such powerful originals as the above songs, that catch in Orton’s throat proved more powerful than all the belt-it-out anthems delivered by Bareilles, McLachlan, and the Court Yard Hounds’ Emily Robison, spookier than all of Cat Power’s mopey mumbling. And when Orton reinterpreted the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 Chicago R&B hit, “O-o-h Child,” as a British folk ballad, that catch hinted that love isn’t always less than expected. Sometimes it’s more.