07/01/2010 11:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Good Singers Go Bad: What Happened to Beth Orton?

I showed up two hours early to see British folk-rock singer Beth Orton's concert on the Hudson River last night. I had planned to have a picnic dinner with a friend before the show. This is the text I sent my friend when I got there: Beth Orton is on the stage right now doing a sound check! Unless that's a stand-in doing it for her. She doesn't sound very good. Five minutes later, I was standing right next to the stage and I sent this one: It's totally her and she sounds bad! Ok I'm going in search of food.

I could only hope that Beth Orton wasn't giving it her all because it was a sound check. That she was saving her real voice for the real audience, who would roll in over the next couple hours and fill up the folding chairs and the grassy knoll abutting the river.

But, alas, it was less than 20 seconds into the concert when my friend and I started giving each other looks of bewilderment and dismay. What had happened to Beth Orton's voice? I've been to many concerts in my life -- from screamer punk to acoustic folk and everything in between -- and I have never before heard an artist ruin his or her own songs. It hurt both my ears and my heart. Here was a lyrical, soulful songwriter whose albums display a rich, raspy voice that sometimes teeters on the edge of a note but never actually falters. And on stage before us was someone who looked like Beth Orton and knew all the words to her songs, but sounded like she was doing karaoke. Bad karaoke.

Her voice was wobbly, off-key, strained, breathy (in the bad sense -- think hyperventilation), and, inexplicably, sounded untrained and unused to being put to work in front of an audience.

Worst of all, this would have been the ideal setting for the mellow, pretty concert we were expecting. It was a perfect breezy summer night with a glowing orange sunset over the Jersey skyline. The field was full - but not too full - of couples, friends, and families laid out on blankets and ready to let the lovely tunes wash over them. Compared to your average mobbed outdoor free New York City event, it was downright blissful.

And then Beth took the stage.

My question is this: Why do good singers go bad? I tried to justify it in a number of ways: She has a cold. She's nervous. She's jet-lagged. She's drunk. She has a methamphetamine addiction that makes her shifty between hits. But nothing seemed quite right. She did cough a couple times between songs, but a cold didn't seem to account for the total failure of her vocal instrument. Besides, why, my friend and I wondered, wouldn't she mention it to the audience if it was just a cold? You know, a little self-justification in the guise of stage banter. No -- this seemed to us like someone who had actually lost her voice. Does such a thing happen? And why?

Of course, I'm going to feel terrible about all this if it turns out she has throat cancer or something. (I feel terrible anyway because I think she's a great artist.) Maybe she just had surgery on her vocal cords? Perhaps a node or two were removed? But if such a thing is true, I wonder at her decision to book a tour at such a moment.

Strangely, the effect was the same as that of a good concert: I ran home and downloaded a bunch of Beth Orton tracks from iTunes. But the reason was different: I longed to hear her songs the way they are meant to be sung, to relieve the aural imprint the concert had left on my mind. A kind of musical cleansing. Given my reaction, maybe she did the whole thing on purpose to increase album sales. But I doubt it.

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