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NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert is a rabbit-hole for music lovers

More than 500 bands from every genre and the thrill of discovery makes this a virtual trove for listeners

St Vincent performing at a Tiny Desk Concert in January.
St Vincent performing at a Tiny Desk Concert in January.

Bernie Dalton was 46 when he wanted to learn how to sing. So he went to a voice coach and began lessons. But within three months, the surfer from Santa Cruz, California, lost his voice, and then, more tragically, was diagnosed with bulbar-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a galloping form of the disease in which nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain die. Soon Dalton couldn’t move his muscles or speak. But collaborating with his voice coach, Essence Goldman, a singer and musician, by using an eye-controlled communication system, he wrote songs and directed the recording of an album, Connection, by his band, Bernie and The Believers.

A poignant video of one of the songs from that album, Unusual Boy, was uploaded for this year’s Tiny Desk Concert contest, organized annually by the US’ National Public Radio (NPR). The contest invites self-recorded videos from bands across the world, and a panel of judges selects the best band from among the thousands of entrants. In the three years that it has been held, the contest winners have been R&B singer Fantastic Negrito, folk singer and violinist Gaelynn Lea, and funk and soul band Tank and the Bangas. The panel of judges has included, besides the NPR’s own hosts, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Trey Anastasio of Phish, and Jess Wolfe of Lucius.

But the contest is really a spin-off of the NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, a series of live performances at the NPR’s office in Washington, DC, in an intimate setting where established bands are invited to play gigs, often acoustic or stripped-down electric. Since 2008, when the series began, there have been nearly 600 such shows, all of which are video-recorded and uploaded on the non-profit, private-cum-public- funded radio station’s website as well as on YouTube, where they have been watched collectively over 80 million times. But such staggering statistics apart, the real thing is that the Tiny Desk Concerts are an amazing trove for anyone who is fond of listening to music. The host of NPR’s All Songs Considered music programme and creator of the Tiny Desk Concerts, Bob Boilen (at whose desk the concerts take place, incidentally), describes it as a “rabbit-hole", and it truly is one where listeners can disappear and listen to exquisite performances by artists, familiar and unknown, and from genres that are wide-ranging.

I spent the last couple of weeks surfing from gig to gig on the Tiny Desk Concerts’ page. Early this month, Black Keys’ Auerbach brought the Easy Eye Sound Revue, a band of veteran musicians, to the desk, including a guest appearance by blues and soul singer Robert Finley. Their laid-back performance harked back to 1960s-style southern folk and R&B, not to mention Finley’s infectious rendition of soul on Get It While You Can. Another gig helped me discover (belatedly, I should add) the music of Brooklyn rapper Masta Ace, one of the genre’s East Coast pioneers and member of the early rap collective of the 1980s, Juice Crew. Bereft of the pounding bass beats that hip hop performances incorporate, the gig was minimalist and brimming with emotion, particularly when Masta Ace did Son Of Yvonne, a heartfelt tribute to his late mother.

In Tiny Desk Concerts, there’s no dearth of similar gems. In archives stretching back to 2008, you can find gigs such as The Cranberries performing five songs in 2012 with the late lead singer Dolores O’Riordan (she died at age 46 this January) performing early hits—Linger and Zombie—but also songs from a then still-to-be-released album, Roses. You can find a gig from 2013 by Debashish Bhattacharya, who plays Hindustani classical music on his version of a slide guitar (an improvised Hawaiian style instrument) with his daughter Anandi on vocals and brother Subhasis on tabla. Their version of Raga Khamaj is essential listening. You can find John Prine, the septuagenarian living legend of country folk whose performance last month at the Tiny Desk can hold you spellbound. Greatly admired by his peers, including, notably, Bob Dylan, Prine is one of American folk’s priceless treasures.

One of my favourite gigs from the archive is Wyclef Jean’s performance from last November. The Haitian rapper, formerly with the Fugees, is a showman par excellence and the three-song performance he gave at the Tiny Desk is epic—to be seen to be believed. Another is this January’s gig by St Vincent. Known for her high-decibel electric sound, indie-rocker St Vincent (aka Annie Clark) played three songs from her most recent album, MASSEDUCTION, including the personal and intimate New York, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. Her albums and gigs usually have complex musical arrangements and her own lead guitar virtuosity always stands out. But at the Tiny Desk, where she kept the music down to minimal levels, her lyrics, which are equally complex and nuanced in symbolism, struck out starkly, making for a very unusual experience.

The Tiny Desk Concert archives are like a live-music lucky dip. You go in and dig out gigs by musicians and have to be prepared to be surprised. Very often, you need to be ready too to be gobsmacked by the musical talent you’ll encounter. Talent that you never knew existed.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. Wyclef Jean at the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

2. Fantastic Negrito at the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

3. Debashish Bhattacharya at the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

4. St Vincent at the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

5. Chance the Rapper at the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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