(A version of this piece appeared a few days ago in the email newsletter Mad About Music. The editor rearranged the order of paragraphs, so I'm posting it here in the way it was intended.)
The intimacy of NPR’s Tiny Desk pressures the musicians in a way that can be revelatory. Lyle Lovett is endearingly nervous and twitchy as he cracks jokes and tries to deflect your attention to Luke Bulla, the young fiddle player he’s brought with him. Dolores O’Riordan is joyful, singing with abandon as if she’s on an arena stage in front of thousands or maybe just at home, twirling in her living room. When someone off camera asks for “Zombie” she’s happy to comply, but only if they can bring her a guitar so she can play the signature lick. The rest of the Cranberries are somber and brilliant, eyes never leaving their live wire.
Josh Ritter’s eyes are shut tight as he sings the passion, frustration and fear of lost hope he feels for his country. “Was it all just a dream?” Jason Isbell plays biting lead guitar on one side of him as Amanda Shires fiddles angrily on the other. Amanda wears a t-shirt with a Leonard Cohen line: “Dance me to the end of love.”
Who the musicians bring with them colors the story. John Prine’s full band never quite gets liftoff, too uncomfortably cramped in the small space. Annie Clark, on the other hand, confounds expectations, appearing with just an acoustic guitar. She’s St. Vincent as urban cool in a red beret, houndstooth suit, and big dark glasses. With an Elvis twist to her lip she reveals the ache in “New York” in a version just as complete as the radically produced album original. It shines. She knows exactly how to fit her art into that room.
The story goes that Bob Boilen, NPR’s musical guru, went to a club with a friend one night and was annoyed that they couldn’t hear the singer over the crowd. So they invited her to come to the studio and play at Bob’s desk. Over the past eleven years, he and his team have recorded hundreds of these little miracles. Three or four songs each, fifteen minutes to half an hour. Tower of Power, Erykah Badu, Mac Miller, Wu-Tang Clan, Ravi Coltrane. Taylor Swift, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Yo-Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens. Boilen’s desk may be tiny, but he has very big ears.