It’s the Fourth of July weekend as I write this month’s column; time to relish in the good stuff. A little kudos and appreciation. For my money Bob Boilen’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert series is not only one of the best places to find great live music on your computer, but also one of the consistently best places online period—regularly recording top musicians making sublime live music. Writing about the Tiny Desk Concert series at this point is a bit like writing about how helpful Wikipedia can be—it’s perhaps so obvious that it goes without saying. However, it also goes with saying–to simply give Boilen all due props for changing the game.
Brief history: Bob Boilen (musician, author of Your Song Changed my Life, host of NPR’s All Song’s Considered for many years) began inviting artists to play at his desk circa 2008. Of course even in 2008 computers were juke boxes, but what the Tiny Desk Concert series brought (and still brings) to curious listeners everywhere was intimacy. The live music you listen to in the series is not an illegal video with poor audio shot from a wobbly smart phone from a concert in Amsterdam, but rather a professionally produced mini-concert with increasingly excellent sound and video quality. Named for Boilen’s old band Tiny Desk Unit, the Tiny Desk Concert series features artists playing generally unplugged to a small audience—the sessions generally include three or four songs so the listener gets a decent sampling without having to devote a large stretch of time listening to an entire two hour concert. Plus, of course, the Tiny Desk Concert series is free to the listener and presumably an effective promotional device for the artists (I would imagine many listeners have been inspired to pay later to see concerts by musicians they discovered via Tiny Desk Concert).
The Tiny Desk Concert series brings an unvarnished, unassuming quality to musical performance—an MTV Unplugged without all the hoopla and look at me corporate pretentiousness. These are warts-and-all events, usually shot in the morning: most artists feature raggedy bedheads, look at least partially unwashed and slurp coffee in between songs. They performed the night before somewhere and are nice enough to pop by NPR before high-tailing to the next gig. They answer questions from the audience, tell stories, banter. As a result, the Tiny Desk Concerts feel very much like off-the-cuff performances in the listener’s den. This includes, of course, the occasional false note, redo or outright flub. Steve Earle, for instance, trips over his words early in “Waitin’ on the Sky,” and starts over blaming debris from a Cobb salad. Lyle Lovett’s sideman seemingly starts the intro of the wrong song. I love these moments. For my money the authenticity of the performances are the draw.
All of this, of course, is made possible recording and video technology and the ubiquity of high speed Internet. The Tiny Desk Concert series has its rivals, most notably Black Cab Sessions—which actually predates The Tiny Desk Concert series. However, I find the Tiny Desk Concerts much more rewarding—more songs, less of a contrivance, and the songs are less restricted by the even tinier space of the back seat of a cab. More recently Boilen has even branched out to host a contest whereby musicians send in their video recordings for a chance of appearing on the Tiny Desk Concert series—a kind of American Idol for musicians.
With the hundreds upon hundreds of concerts in the Tiny Desk Concert series archive one could spend days just listening to the many terrific performances. However, for me there are a few standouts worth mentioning here, in no particular order (the tip of the iceberg):
- Lyle Lovett, sans the Large Band. Performing only with his backup singer and fiddle player Luka Bolla, Lovett’s warm, big-hearted songs have never sounded so good. His asymmetrical face comes alive as he sings a gorgeous rendition of “If You Were to Wake Up.” “Pretend like this is going well,” he jokes in between songs. He looks around the small room and jokes, “It’s kinda weird, right?” And he tells a great story about meeting Iris Demett’s daughter on a cruise.
- Leon Bridges. Stripped of the hype, newcomer Bridges and his band sound outstanding. Bridges might look sixteen but he’s a force to be reckoned with. His version of “River” (one of the best songs in recent memory) alone is worth the price of admission.
- Edward and the Magnetic Zeroes. This one just makes me smile. How many hippies can you fit in 100 square feet? Apparently, a lot. Edward Sharpe may look like the leader of a free love cult, but this is a collective effort in the best sense—everyone chimes in with a backing vocal and a smile and the songs are rife with sunbeams.
- Beth Orton. Stripped of the electronica that usually accompanies her recorded songs, Orton is less ethereal, more raspy that you might expect. Also, far more congenial.
- Richard Thompson. What can I say? He’s one of the best living guitarists and every one of his songs has presence.
- Booker T. Jones. Doesn’t get much better than hearing Booker T. Jones playing Green Onions on the Hammond B3 Organ. Great version of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” also. He talks about his early days discovering the organ and plays a little Bach to illustrate.
- Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. In perfect synchronicity. Rawlings is one of the most underrated guitarists out there—flawless tandem.
- Bill Callahan. His spare resonant sound is perfect for this medium. I never realized how much he winced while singing. Clearly this man suffers for each note. Yet, it sounds effortless. If you have read this space before you know I believe him to be one of the wildly overlooked contemporary musicians, though I’m glad to see he is getting a portion of his due now.
- Lucinda Williams. With accompaniment, she sounds especially bluesy and gritty here. The antidote to Meghan Trainor. 100% authenticity.
- St. Paul and the Broken Bones. This is a classic. Leader singer Paul Janeway and his retro-soul band sound terrific and who could forget Janeway standing on Boilen’s desk belting out his nuevo Stax sound.
- The National. It’s nice to appreciate musicians who you might not gravitate to as much based on the recordings. To my ear the National sometimes sound monotone but here, stripped down, they are filled with texture and a greater choral aspect. Warning—this concert contains arm tingling inducing instrumentation and background vocals, timely horns and brushed drums.
- Other honorable mentions: Andrew Bird, Chick Corea and Gary Burton, the Klezmatics. Cat Stevens. Playing “Father and Son” as if he wrote it yesterday. I could go on and on.
If you are new to the Tiny Desk Concert series, it is definitely worth checking out. Discover your own favorites. However, even if you have listened to a number of the concerts, there are surely scores of others that you should check out. My only major complaint with the series is that, despite erring on the side of general eclecticism, I hope they can still snag more jazz, bluegrass and blues musicians for the series. As it is now the aesthetics still lean heavily to the indie. The Tiny Desk Concert series especially excels at introducing new audiences to musicians to whom they might not otherwise be familiar. Thus, I hope they can help attempt to keep some of the forgotten musical forms alive and well by giving them a decent platform.
Here’s to Bob Boilen for offering us such a rich and valuable musical resource.