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Beth Orton, M. Ward Make Sadness Taste

Sydney, Australia — Lovers, drifters, jokers, here's a night. On a stage where, as Beth Orton later puts it, "We seem to have had a flower explosion" — petals half-blasted from pink and white carnations — plain arrangements in simple glass vases are set beside a piano, drums, amps, two stools, and two microphones, as if to say, presences are moving here.

At the York Theatre on February 2, Laura Imbruglia launches into it all, a little knot of nerves in jeans, thongs and T-shirt, shielded by her acoustic guitar and the tilt of her chin. She's not going be anybody but herself! Her style is lightly pugnacious and funny as all get-out, with songs about her vegan punk friends, how even her family mistakes her for a lesbian ("but I'm not") and how she's just "a grandma at 20" who likes to stay home ("and no one understands except grandmas").

Sometimes Imbruglia is so droll she verges on drab, but there's a quality to her that trembles, a truth-telling and self-effacing sensitivity that keeps everything on edge. She takes a lover to task in "Headshrink" for how big his head (literally) is, confessing that she fears having his child would necessitate a Caesarean. It's one of her best tunes, possessed by a melodic drive Imbruglia could make more use of elsewhere when she threatens to sink herself with morose strumming. It's also yet another example of her original slant on the world, subtly marked with a valiant way of taking it on.

M. Ward rushes in next beneath his trademark baseball cap, eyes in shadow, head down. "What's so funny?" he asks slyly as a girl laughs loudly in the audience, tuning his guitar like he's in on the joke too. Soon enough we're the ones inside "Helicopter," immersed in its on-the-run blues phrasing and strange lyrics about how "I came in through a window, I left through a hole in the wall." You could take the song as a metaphor for all his work, blues-and-country influenced with touches of Nick Drake and a fascination for cryptic Waitsian turns that move off into dreams and back out of them again.

There's no doubt Ward is the most exciting talent to hit our shores since Jeff Buckley and Ben Harper first arrived here. He can play guitar with a devilish softness and speed and is also a dab hand at the keyboards, transforming the apparent romance of "Going to Carolina" (usually played on acoustic) by seguing into it on the silvery death strains of the piano instrumental "Transfiguration #2," chilling the sweetness of the former into a revenge song tangled up as a sincere apology.

His version of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" is slowed down and almost unrecognizable, announcing him as the true spellbinder he is. A new song about how he's "got lonesome fuel for power" matches it, amid the mysterious way in which Ward masters the charms of momentum and shadow, all the while suggesting the most beautiful of things. A cover of Daniel Johnstone's "Story of an Artist" shows he has plenty of comic sense too, even if the laughs play towards something secretly heartbroken and lonely. Maybe all Ward is trying to say is that the world needs its dreamers, even if it fails to understand them. Listening to his music you feel him reaching down into that darkness and brushing by something wonderful every time.

Beth Orton joins him on Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," and by now it's clear this night is turning into a treat. Behind them is Dirty Three drummer Jim White, a man so variously in demand by everyone from Will Oldham to Nick Cave it's not so much an accolade as a statement of fact that he is one of the greatest drummers working today. The guy doesn't just play those things, he makes landscapes to travel on, from your basic back-beat to the pulse of trains and clocks, the rub of sand, pictures and moods arising from rhythm and some loose quality in him that makes it feel as if anything could happen between him and the other musicians.

It must be confessed, nonetheless, that Ward, Orton and White feel at times as if they are sliding past each other like poorly stacked, if beautiful, plates. You can hear them touching. Fortunately the verandah musings of "Buckets of Rain" can stand the treatment. There are similar moments later, when the humanity of Orton's own songwriting allows for some mistaken pacing, a feeling of "out," where everyone might go and come back again together.

In such exquisite improvising company, Orton's long-standing pianist Sean Read deserves praise for being so quietly able. Indeed shyness appears to be the dominating force beneath the music tonight, from Orton's own goofy, gawky, "I'm bollocks" grace to White's ashy weariness and slept-late bemusement and Ward's hunch-shouldered interior confidence. Everybody has room for everyone else, and with it some ear for caring that floods the music with deep feeling as it's played from moment to moment.

Maybe that's just an over-emotive way of saying these musicians literally find their way into "the brilliant skies" of Orton's "Central Reservation" or something as wonderful and new as her "Comfort of Strangers." But despite some moronic audience requests for her old band, Orton's defensive explanation about a need to explore and progress is dead on target for this new combination. For if M. Ward was brilliant in support, Orton is transporting. She makes this feel like an evening of breakthroughs, her folky, bird-clear voice empowered by her lyrical strengths and a completely new feeling for her songs: "Oh the colors that you bring."

It's not often you get a show of this breadth, or one that seems to be searching for its own way forward, ready to fall but flying instead. Watching Orton onstage you felt someone getting more and more beautiful and grand, from the delicacy of "Sugar Boy" to calling someone "a plonker" for demanding a song she had already played. Maybe some of the dopey audience comments were of Orton's own making, the way she let us all in as if we were sitting at her kitchen table — but who could really complain that she was too open? She made us all feel close and happy; she made sadness taste sweet, even liberating. — Mark Mordue [Thursday, February 19, 2004]

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