"Deskovering" NPR's Tiny Desk Performances

A few of our writers discuss their favourite NPR Tiny Desk Concerts!

multiple writers
11th November 2019
Wikimedia Commons: NPR
NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts take some of the worlds best artists and place them on a tiny stage, situated behind, a tiny desk. Some of our writers chose their favourite concerts and “deskuss” just what makes them so good.
IDLES: Joe Smith

The best band in the world, IDLES, took the tiny desk stage by storm, delivering the same amount of raucous energy they would at any of their live shows, the only difference being is that this time, it’s a little more intimate.

Starting off with the incredible ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’, frontman Joe Talbot makes it clear that he owns the stage as he struts about whilst the rest of the band head bang ferociously, delivering the pure punk not punk IDLES are known for. The band attacks toxic masculinity with such strong passion, it’s hard not to love them. One song down and Joe’s already red in the face, displaying his devotion to the music.

An IDLES show isn’t an IDLES show unless guitarist Mark Bowen is shirtless and prancing around the stage, which is exactly how the next song ‘Mercedes Marxist’ chorus begins, with Mark climbing onto multiple amps and delivering the songs signature riff. This shows just how well the band work together, able to perform their songs with chaos of sorts happening all around them.

“We are not the Jonas Brothers” states Joe Talbot before they kick of their last song ‘Scum’. A song about the retaliation against the upper class. Mark brings on two members of the NPR team to play the drums for the track, just another example of how fun IDLES are. “Dirty rotten filthy scum” scream the entire band on the songs final chorus. A perfect end to a perfect tiny desk performance.

Chance the Rapper: Ben Travis

Chance the rapper’s Tiny Desk concert should be stapled to his artistry.Each artist usually betters Tiny Desk, giving the platform more prestige and culture credit with every performance. Mac Miller’s concert, for example, holds a certain level of sentiment for the fans, being one of his last recorded shows. Therefore, showing the significance an artist can make on the platform’s popularity.

For Chance the Rapper, this is the opposite.

Chance the Rapper is bettered by his Tiny Desk show. It amplifies his raw talent in three ways. Chance opens with 'Juke Jam'; a song from his debut album, ‘Coloring book’. Arguably, one of his more unfamiliar songs. However, Chance delivers 'Juke Jam' better than the original recording. Don’t believe me? Read the YouTube comments. Chance’s fanbase repeatedly state how they don’t hold J'uke Jam' to high regard, but the performances effortless vocals and raw instruments provide them with a new appreciation of the song.

For the second piece, Chance performs is a poem; written the same day as the show. He apologises to the audience before he begins, saying he had not written poetry for a while. The self-reflective poem sees chance tracking where he is now, in comparison to where he has been. ‘I still have the keys that are no used to me, they use to though’. The poem allows us to see him as more than just chance the rapper, but as chance … the artist, If you will.

Finally, Chance performs a cover. Stevie Wonder’s ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’ is an unlikely adaptation for Chance to take. But his ability to master it, speeding up its tempo by infusing it with a Jazz and Funk influence, shows Chance’s innate ability to take the old and make it his own.

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals: Alex Gervas

Back in August 2016 Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals did an acoustic version of their songs “Come Down”, “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance”, “Put Me Thru” and “Suede”, for the “NPR Tiny Desk”.

Anderson .Paak’s style during live performances is exceptionally characteristic. When they play, the whole room fills with positivity. The band made spontaneous jokes and comments through the set, which seemed to come naturally. The best part came when Anderson .Paak and guitarist, Jose Rios tried to explain what the song “Come Down” meant.

The Tiny Desk especially made Anderson’s voice stand out. His raspy, jazzy voice blended perfectly with the guitar and keys. The ability to talk and play the drums at the same time is something that I still find fascinating about .Paak.

However, the voice is not the only thing that makes this Tiny Desk brilliant. Kelsey González’s bass lines are already marvellous outside the acoustic performances; but this set makes it more present, fuller. The bass feels the room and serves as an excellent base for the songs, while still keeping itself low key.

By the end of the set, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals decided to accept a request. And, the band was surprised when the audience chose “Suede”. Although the music was highly melodic and subtle, the lyrics of the song were full of curses and crude language. As they said at the tiny desk, the band wrote the song for the guitarist, Jose Rios’ ex-girlfriend.

The good vibes and soft music make this “NPR Tiny Desk” wholly unique and beautiful. The artists’ humour and ease make it look like any instrument is easy to play.

Hobo Johnson and the Love Makers: Alex Darbyshire

I always like to use NPR's Tiny Desk concerts to introduce someone to an artist, whether it's cool, funky customers like Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, the incredible instrumentation of Thundercat, or the choppy, cutting lyrics of Tech N9ne. Whatever the artist, it's characteristic of these mini-concerts that you get a broad taste of the artist, and often hear some of their best tracks. Personally, I think one of the most unique artists to ever perform for this channel is Hobo Johnson and the Lovemakers.

This American group combines a lot of different genres, ranging from rap, quirky indie rock, to spoken word. I think this is what really sets Hobo Johnson and his band apart. Many of this group's songs feel much more like a session of slam poetry than a hip hop song.

Plenty of the album-versions of their songs feature denser instrumentation and more experimental sampling, but their Tiny Desk concert dials this back to really focus on the evocative lyrics of their 'homeless' frontman. We'll see that this works against the band in some ways and really helps them in others. 

Everything about Johnson's set oozes personality, and you really get a sense of his frenetic, sharply emotive style and his deeply self deprecating sense of humour. The band opens with 'Romeo and Juliet', a track from the band's 2015 debut album, The Rise of Hobo Johnson. This song perfectly encompasses the band’s musicality. This live version is much more aggressive than on the album, but I prefer it for that.

The vocals aren’t as clean and can feel overwhelming - at least I felt that way on my first listen - you can see that the band have achieved what I think is the most important thing a group of performers can. You can tell these guys really love to perform these tracks. 

Lyrically speaking, Johnson is also over the place, but that’s not a bad thing. His allusions range from Shakespearian to chick-flick-ian and they often have my English literature-ass picking lines apart for minutes after the song has finished. There aren’t many other artists I can say do that to me.

That said, the emo, semi-depressed melancholia that the band definitely isn’t for everyone, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for preferring some of the more conventional artists’ Tiny Desk concerts. 

This band might not be for everyone, but I certainly appreciate their unique approach to music and performance.

Hozier: Elizabeth Lamb

You might think that the power of an anthem such as Take Me To Church in all its ferocity may be lost in translation with the Tiny Desk format, but Hozier delivers, as always, with passion and the stripped-back accompaniment lifts the song to the point of transcendence. 

He continues the set with To Be Alone, and this is when the magic truly begins. For the rest of the set it’s just Hozier, his guitar and his man bun, arguably him at his best. To Be Alone is a yearning bluesy number that proves his pure talent as a guitarist and as a vocalist. If you have ever seen Hozier perform live you will know that when he hits that falsetto in the chorus, there is no other option than to be blown away. There is a mystical quality to his voice that captivates any audience, be it in an intimate setting such as the Tiny Desk Concert or a crowded concert hall. 

The final song in the setlist is definitively the jewel in the crown. Cherry Wine is a heart-wrenching acoustic ballad that is one of Hozier’s finest lyrical moments. He plays a sweet, benign melody as he tells the tale of an abusive lover which, along with his raw emotional delivery, immerses the audience in a palpable melancholy. 

The concert showcases Hozier’s impressive musical versatility and that rare ability he has to hook you with his words and play with your heartstrings - a sorely underrated modern-day bard.

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