What a difference an album can make. Just a couple of months ago, on his first trip to the UK, Winston Yellen – aka Night Beds – drew just 20 people to his headline show at the Slaughtered Lamb. This time around, following the release of his debut album, Country Sleep, the Borderline was packed to the rafters.
At the first show, having supported Wild Nothing and Sharon Van Etten a few days before, the 23-year-old played in front of friends, support bands…and his dad. Taking to the stage alone, he was comfortable, chatting, joking and drinking. Tonight he’s suited and booted, flanked by a four-piece band and visibly overwhelmed by the number of people crammed into the West End basement. The band lends itself to a built-up version of the set he played a few months ago, but it never detracts from what Night Beds is all about – that voice.
The story goes that young Yellen, down in the dumps having lost his job and his girlfriend, packed a bag and ran off to Nashville. There he rented a house that used to belong to Johnny Cash and June Carter, and wrote his first LP. The result was an album that has Nashville at its very core; loneliness, heartache and nostalgia are the album’s key themes, woven around warm, simple orchestration, with slices of classic country thrown in.
His voice is at the helm of what he does; gravelly but able to easily slip into a perfectly controlled baritone, it balances being a story teller with giving a warning; world weary but naive and excitable. It paints desolate, wintry scenes and tells tales of a desperate young man, but despite all that he never feels too dark – Keaton Henson can rest safe.
A more raucous show than he played last time he was on our shores, songs veer into jams, with Yellen clearly enjoying bouncing off the other boys in the band. Positioning himself somewhere between an upbeat Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, with riffs from the Alex Chilton book of song writing, his songs are rambling and at times they don’t quite fit together, with guitars wandering off in a different direction to keys (“We just made that up” he chuckles at the end of Lost Springs – the first time the band have played it together), but somehow it works.
Whether it’s the melodic Ramona or the tear jerking, room silencer Even If We Try, Yellen has the room in his hand. “It’s weird because I don’t feel like I’m up here and you’re out there – I feel like we’re all together,” he mumbles – it might sound trite, but at times it did feel like that; as the bar silenced and the chatter died out, he led us into his world.
A solo encore saw a less cocky, almost shy figure onstage, twitching and jerking behind the microphone. It was reminiscent of his earlier show. But when you can sing like that, who needs a smart suit and a backing band?