Simplicity can mean everything. A single voice, an acoustic guitar and a personal, meaningful message is often more powerful than any rock supergroup. At the El Rey Theatre on Tuesday, Beth Orton, along with a surprise opening set by Beck, demonstrated the timeless energy of folk.
Orton first drew raves for her 1997 “Trailer Park” album, which blended simple folk stylings with the drums and loops of the Chemical Brothers. But her new album, “Central Reservation,” is largely a step away from that progressive blend, too often building songs on strangely conservative band arrangements.
Orton, who returns to town next week on the Lilith Fair tour, was at her best Tuesday when she stood alone with her guitar, much as she did a year ago at the same theater. There was no shortage of power in her songwriting. Her material was a mixture of weary resignation and declarations of inner strength. Backed by a four-piece band, Orton’s voice was filled with longing as she sang, “Would you please knock me off my feet for a while?” Later, she declared, “Well, I’m not going to lie down and die for you!”
Beck limited his set to four songs, mostly culled from his recent “Mutations” album. He was a last-minute addition to the show, offering a rare opportunity for fans to see him play in a relatively cozy room. “You can’t say no to Beth,” Beck told the crowd. “She has a way.”
For all his fluency in the electronic pop world, his roots are closer to those of Neil Young and Johnny Cash. And at the El Rey, Beck performed songs of growing emotional weight. The lack of band and studio effects put the focus on his lyrics, which remain surreal but make a strange emotional sense.
Beth Orton appears with the Lilith Fair on July 16 at Coors Amphitheatre, 2050 Otay Valley Road, Chula Vista, 3:30 p.m. $32 to $82. (619) 671-3600. Also July 17 at the Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena, 2 p.m. $25 to $75. (818) 577-3100.