Tiny Desk Concerts from NPR Music feature your favorite musicians performing at All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen's desk in the NPR office. Hear Wilco, Adele, Passion Pit, Tinariwen, Miguel, The xx and many more. This is the audio version of the podcast. A video version is also available.More from Tiny Desk Concerts - Audio »
Spoiler alert: The Punch Brothers came to the Tiny Desk on Chris Thile's birthday. We made him a cake and gave him an NPR surprise! This wasn't the first time the brilliant mandolinist had brought a project to my desk — it was his fourth. The last time was with his longtime band Nickel Creek, but also with his new braces. So the cake we presented here was inscribed "Brace Yourself Chris Happy Birthday." He blew out the candles and then, along with this versatile and talented band, rocked our world. Punch Brothers mixes the worlds of bluegrass, pop and classical. It's a tough combination to imagine, an even harder one to make work, but this band of fiddler, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny on banjo, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert make the unimaginable contagious and fun. They push boundaries and make music like no one else.
Tiny Desk Concert with Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O'Riley on February 23, 2015.
Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley
Whether it's warranted or not, classical music wonks are perennially worried about the next generation of fans. It seems there's less need to fret when you hear cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O'Riley. Some 15 years ago, they were already chipping away at the barriers — both real and perceived — between classical and pop. Haimovitz played Bach in barrooms across America, and O'Riley (who hosts From The Top, NPR's classical radio show for young musicians) began including his own sophisticated transcriptions of songs by Radiohead and Elliott Smith in his recitals. On their double album Shuffle.Play.Listen., music by Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla mingles with Cocteau Twins and Arcade Fire. Comfortably ensconced behind Bob Boilen's desk, the duo plays a typically diverse set. The central work, "The Orchard," is a collaboration between Philip Glass and West African composer Foday Musa Suso. It unfolds like a lullaby, as the piano's rocking bass line provides a mesmerizing foundation for the cello's wistful song high above. Surrounding it are lyricism and outbursts by Beethoven, from his Cello Sonata No. 4 (sounding distinctly 20th century), and a cinematic movement from Leoš Janáček's Pohádka, where heart-melting melodies clash with nervous energy.
Many tributaries follow the story of African migration to this part of the world. Much of that narrative is well-known, but little-known pockets of African culture still produce unique cultural expressions. The story of the Garifuna people is just one example. A tapestry of cultures and influences can be heard in the guitar work of Aurelio Martinez in this Tiny Desk Concert. Accompanied by traditional Garifuna musicians and an electric guitar, Aurelio, as he is known, weaves together intricate layers of acoustic guitar to capture the polyrhythms of West African and the Caribbean. His words reflect the longing and pride for the Garifuna culture from his home along the Pacific coast of Honduras. This is not museum music. This is living, breathing culture that is celebrated in Honduras and wherever else Afro-Latino descendants land in the so-called New World. Aurelio, his band and this music provide a fitting tribute to a nearly forgotten moment in history, keeping it alive for future generations.
It says a lot that, with almost 7,000 entries to choose from, we selected Fantastic Negrito as the winner of our Tiny Desk Concert Contest. For his winning submission, he performed "Lost In A Crowd" in a freight elevator in Oakland. It was his passion, his voice and his backing band that landed him an invitation to perform behind my desk. We're proud of our choice. As we learned after choosing him as our winner, Fantastic Negrito — a.k.a. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, pronounced dee-FREP-ah-lez — has a remarkable backstory. One of 15 children, he grew up in a strict home, and later signed a contract with Interscope Records in the '90s. That deal fell apart, though, and soured him on music-making. Then, a near-fatal car crash put him in a coma, and eventually left him without the proper use of his hands; he struggled with physical therapy for years to get some movement from what he now calls "The Claw." These days, bolstered by a new outlook on life and music, he's reawakened and reemerged under the name Fantastic Negrito. You'll see that newly rediscovered purpose in his eyes and hear it in his voice, as he performs this Tiny Desk Concert with his fantastic band.
I first saw Phox in an impromptu concert at a restaurant in Philadelphia. I thought the band was talented and charming, and I still do. Phox is six friends from Baraboo, Wis., who make pretty, catchy music. The group's not-so-secret weapon is Monica Martin, who sings with a smoky lilt in front of spare, tasteful instrumentation. You can hear that warm, accessible sound on Phox's 2014 debut, which was recorded at Wisconsin's April Base studio, built by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and his brother. Touring has tightened this band since that off-the-cuff restaurant performance last year, as this marvelous performance at the Tiny Desk suggests.
Sometime years from now I may be asked: What was your favorite day at NPR? I am likely to say it's the day Dan Deacon got the NPR staff worked up into a giant dance party! It's also the day Deacon and staff wheeled in an upright piano and connected it to his computer — a magical mix of old player piano and electronic avant-garde. Yes, Deacon makes electronic music and dance music, but it's not the thump thump thump stuff you'd go to a club for. It's a mix of Brian Eno, Philip Glass and your kids' birthday party (if you were the cool parents your kids wished they had). Dan came toting songs and that piano from his new record (which is quickly becoming my favorite of his), Gliss Riffer. The party really kicked into gear with the second song. And by the end you'll find me and my All Songs Considered co-host doing wild dance moves with 100 people. There'd never been a day at NPR quite like this!
With her huge voice and an assist from talented trombonist Daniel Walter Eaton, Zola Jesus presented a curious combination at the Tiny Desk — a combination I hardly ever encounter. Having seen her mostly with a big and powerful band, I wondered if this configuration would work. But it was magic, with the trombone poignantly complementing her mellifluous voice and stark personal words.Zola Jesus is the work of Nika Roza Danilova. She has five albums that span and mix electronic music, classical and goth influences. She's always exploring unusual combinations, and this mix of trombone and voice provides just a glimpse into her eclectic explorations. If you find this intriguing and don't know Zola Jesus, you're in for an adventure as you explore her catalog, including her most recent album, Taiga.
The beauty of the Tiny Desk lies, at least partially, in the limitations of size and technology. We rarely amplify voices, for example, so for a band like Until The Ribbon Breaks, the challenge becomes how to take a loud electronic sound down to a volume where singer Pete Lawrie-Winfield can be heard. In this case, the solution involved a spaghetti strainer, a paint bucket and an acoustic guitar.It wasn't easy for Until The Ribbon Breaks to devise new arrangements for tried-and-true songs like "Pressure," from its full-length debut A Lesson Unlearnt. But it worked, because the Cardiff band's dance beats are always secondary to strong melodies and songwriting.
When I first imagined Mucca Pazza at the Tiny Desk, I honestly had no idea how the Chicago band's 23 members would fit in — in the literal sense of the term. To load-test this performance, we actually gathered a gaggle of interns behind my desk and began to stack people on cabinets, step-stools and, of course, desks.In nearly seven years of doing Tiny Desk Concerts, with more than 400 participating acts, this turned out to be the biggest one yet. It was also one of the most fun, with Mucca Pazza performing songs from its album L.Y.A. using trombones, saxophones, trumpets, woodwinds, violin, electric mandolin, accordion, cello, guitar, sousaphone, a big bass drum, percussion instruments and more. Then there were the cheerleaders.I first heard this giant performance-art marching band at globalFEST 2013, and Mucca Pazza's mix of cacophony, symphony and crazed frolic makes it a large, lovable renegade. The band just celebrated its first 10 years together, so if you missed the first decade, prepare to be a fan of the next. You may even be tempted to join this circus.
It might be easy to dismiss a music project from actor John Reilly, but that would be a huge mistake: Reilly is a fine singer, especially when he gets a hold of old-time material, and his guitar work provides a perfect foundation for these church and porch tunes from America's past.Reilly's eclectic choice of collaborators speaks to his passion and dedication:Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark are no strangers to folk tradition. Brosseau's striking voice was first heard on NPR in 2006 — he performed a Tiny Desk Concert of his own last year — while Stark is a performer and a singer known to many as Lavender Diamond. Her voice fits in sweetly between Reilly's and Brosseau's in a way that recalls her work in the country trio The Living Sisters. Rounding out this home-brewed acoustic affair is Andru Bemis on banjo and fiddle, as well as Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg, who plays upright bass with finesse and humor.So turn off the lights, blot out the distractions, light a candle or two, and let the glow — and the glow of your screen — transport you to country's past, when singers would all gather around a single mic. This is a band meant to play a Tiny Desk Concert.