I can’t remember how it happened. It might be that my friend Su told me about it. It might have been in the Guardian’s ‘Click to Download’ section. But someone somewhere did me a service by turning me on to US National Public Radio (NPR).
It’s there that you’ll find Bob Boilen‘s “All Songs Considered” [link] and its splendid offspring “Tiny Desk Concerts” [link]. There are lots of ways in which you can access this remarkable, and totally free, entertainment whether you want to watch or just listen (I like the former but my commute sometimes forces the latter). Anyways, I’m watching one of those bands that I wrote about already, Night Beds.
I really appreciate it when bands have (or appear to have) thought about how to best present their material to ensure that it has real punch, that it grips your attention with force. This NPR Tiny Desk concert is one such. Part of it is down to the Tiny Desk team who experience teaches are showpeople in their own right. Producer Robin Hilton induces a false start with comic timing and nice patter. The band respond kindly, with evident good humour. And then they’re off, with singer Winston Yellen unleashing himself a capella with the arresting “Faithful Heights”. It’s some tune, and some voice, eh ?
From there it’s straight into a song I said enough about already (lovely tune, guitar sounds i could cry for – oh to be able to play steel guitar…), “Ramona”, then “22” and “Hide From It”. You might say it’s not a very diverse set, with the same essential combination throughout: THAT lap steel, the brushed drums coupling with the acoustic guitar to give the songs their sense of momentum, and the electric guitar providing some additional melody and atmosphere. But that doesn’t bother me because it’s all done so well. Next stop: their debut album Country Sleep. He wrote it in a house in Nashville, once owned by Johnny Cash. It only goes one way from here..
That isn’t the only reason that I came here, however. I had to tell you something else. Something just as important.
It starts with the chords that ring out over the opening credits, a glimpse of the strength to come before Sam Beam breaks in with trademark chuckles. I could listen to him speak or sing all day. I can imagine going to sleep with his voice in my ears it’s such a reassuring sound.
He chats a little more but then he launches in again, off the back of that steady, striding acoustic guitar that IS the noise of friends walking slowly uphill, pressing on through the drifts.
“Halfway home in the hilltop trees
And all our footprints in the snow
And the evening glow leaving
Low night noise in the wintertime
I wake beside you on the floor
Counting your breathing”
It’s almost too much when he hits the high notes during the final chorus.
The other stand-out track (and that’s not to do-down “Big Burned Hand” and “Naked As We Came” which feature similarly strong vocal performances and a lovely moment where he apologises for cussing) for me is “Tree By The River”. Besides having one of the sweetest melodies that I have heard in a long time, one that instantly makes me want to learn to (play guitar so that I can) play it and to sing it with my friend Nick, it also strikes just that chord that Sam Beam wants it to. It is a charmingly poignant track, put together without fuss or frills and all the better and more affecting for that simplicity. Placed only against his acoustic guitar, his voice transports us to that tree, that river, to that canyon, that pasture, to that car, to that “potty-mouthed girl” and that “pretty pair of blue-eyed birds”. This song is also accompanied by a humble exposition of the writing process that makes you wonder even more at the beautiful work produced by this father-of-five with the amazing beard. Thanks Sam.