NPR Music & Concerts

Music features, reviews and "first listens" from NPR.  For WUNC's music programs,  Back Porch Music.

There is a wonderful irony in a career retrospective of a living artist that becomes so popular it outlives its subject. In 2010 — long before David Bowie Is travelled to ten other locations around the world, before it landed in Brooklyn earlier this month — London's Victoria & Albert Museum was approached by the rock icon's management to create an exhibit out of the singer's archives. At the time, the idea that such a show would be taken seriously, much less prove to be a success, were hardly foregone conclusions.

Raul Midón lives in a world of sound — blind since birth, Midón's interpretation of his surroundings is borderless. He sings with the passion of the best classic soul singers, and his instrumental chops stand along side the most accomplished jazz musicians.

Normally backed by a band that straddles styles just as well as he does, for his turn behind Bob Boilen's desk Midón stripped it down to just voice and guitar, the musical equivalent of tightrope walking without a net.

We mark the 10th anniversary of the Swannanoa Gathering's Traditional Song Week with more music and interview highlights from Julee Glaub Weems, David Holt, and Jean Ritchie.

On Sept. 28, 1963, The Ronettes performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In the video, the curtain parts to reveal the three singers dressed in identical long-sleeved pencil dresses, their hair partially swept up in the same half-bouffant that would become part of their signature style. They sway their hips and arms awkwardly to the opening bars of "Be My Baby," and then Ronnie Spector, standing on the left, opens her mouth.

An American treasure came to the Tiny Desk and even premiered a new song. John Prine is a truly legendary songwriter. For more than 45 years the 71-year-old artist has written some of the most powerful lyrics in the American music canon, including "Sam Stone," "Angel From Montgomery," "Hello In There" and countless others.

Every year for the past four years we've had a Tiny Desk Contest (there's one going on right now), and though only one band can officially win the competition, thousands enter. I inevitably end up discovering so much wonderful music while going through the submissions.

We mark the 10th anniversary of the Swannanoa Gathering's Traditional Song
Week with music and interview highlights from Cathie Ryan, Sheila Kay Adams
and Brian McNeill.

Long before he was the leader of rock octet Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff was a kid in rural Missouri sneaking around listening to rock and roll. Rateliff remembers finding a Led Zeppelin tape out in a country barn and secretly listening to it over and over in his headphones.

Even before The Beatles recorded their own version of "Twist and Shout," British fascination with American soul music has run deep. Vocalist and songwriter Alex Clare is yet another soul disciple from the UK, and his visit to Bob Boilen's desk is the perfect setting to bask in the power of his voice.

Grandmothers never truly die. Especially not when they bear as much influence on your life as Big K.R.I.T.'s grandmother has on his. The Mississippi spitter has kept her spirit alive through his music since his breakout mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which he released in 2010, the same year she died.

So it only makes sense that he would bring her with him for his Tiny Desk concert.

Out of nearly 700 performances at the Tiny Desk, this is simply the most exhilarating one I've experienced. The instrumentation is unusual, with pulsing bass sounds produced by a wonderful combination of cello, tuba and electronics. It's all rhythmically propelled by an astonishing drummer and Meredith pounding a pair of floor toms. And much of the repetitive melody is keyboard-and-guitar-driven that morphs and erupt with earth-shaking fervor.

Roy Ayers: Tiny Desk Concert

Mar 1, 2018

Roy Ayers arrived at his Tiny Desk performance beaming with positivity. The 77-year-old jazz-funk icon and vibraphonist sauntered through the office with a Cheshire grin on his face, sharing jokes with anyone within earshot. Accompanying him was a trio of brilliantly seasoned musicians — keyboardist Mark Adams, bassist Trevor Allen and drummer Christopher De Carmine. Later during the performance, pride washed across Ayers' face as his bandmates took the spotlight. (Be sure to watch as Adams woos not just the room but brightens Ayers' face during his solo.)

The Thistle & Shamrock: Songs Of The Times

Feb 28, 2018

Join Fiona Ritchie to hear what today's songwriters with Celtic roots have to contribute to our understanding of current concerns, locally and globally. This episodes features music from Karan Casey, Solas, Dick Gaughan, and Karine Polwart.

The lack of women engineers and producers in music is not news. Historically, the recording studio has rarely seen women outside of the reception area or, in the case of a performance venue, in the box office. And as a 2012 report in The Journal on the Art of Record Production shows, these same conversations about gender imbalance in music production have been happening over and over for decades — with little progress being made.

Lee Ann Womack occupies rare terrain in country music. Though massively popular singles led to commercial success and widespread recognition, these days, she's working on the fringes of the genre. Her 2017 record, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, evokes the country music of Womack's Texas upbringing as the daughter of a country radio DJ, name-checking Hank Williams and covering George Jones.

Vagabon: Tiny Desk

Feb 23, 2018

Laetitia Tamko, the artist known as Vagabon, is a 25-year-old, Cameroon-born musician with a big, tenor voice just bursting with new musical ideas. I've seen her as a solo artist, with a band and, here at the Tiny Desk, both solo and with a bassist.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Clear Sounds

Feb 21, 2018

This week, Fiona Ritchie presents some great solo performances from both sides of the Atlantic. This includes the pure, clear acoustic sounds of Jean Redpath, Julee Glaub, and Maura O'Connell.

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August Greene: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 21, 2018

August Greene, the collaborative effort of Common, Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, was born at the White House in 2016 during a special Tiny Desk concert. It was during that unprecedented performance that the then-untitled ensemble premiered the powerful "Letter to the Free," an original song for Ava DuVernay's Netflix documentary 13th that eventually won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

Big Daddy Kane: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 19, 2018

One of the greatest to ever bless the mic, Big Daddy Kane treated Tiny Desk to an office block party in the true essence of hip-hop. He performed a short set of classics, including "Smooth Operator," "Ain't No Half Steppin'," "Raw" and a bonus freestyle. Through his warm, engaging and devilishly self-effacing style, the pioneer used an interlude between songs to address the intergenerational divisiveness defining rap today and the importance of fans of all ages supporting whatever they like, while "focusing on what's positive and keeping that in the spotlight."

This week, from ThistleRadio's award-winning 24-hour music channel, we span the decades with classic, bedrock tracks of our playlist along with some of the newer artists helping to redefine the sound of today's Celtic-rooted music. Artists include Kris Drever, Dervish, and the Bothy Band. Enjoy.

Watching Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo perform their Tiny Desk concert is like peering back in time. The music's roots extend to the Venezuelan slave trade, and while the vocals are in Spanish and not an African dialect, the instruments the group plays date back more than 500 years.

The music of Nick Hakim occupies a space and time that is faintly out of this world. The guitars and machinery that make up his music feel slightly askew, as though someone slowed down the tape machine every once in a while. His raspy voice feels drenched in a cavernous space. In fact, the first time I met Nick Hakim, he was literally draped in fiber optics, as if stars were surrounding him.

Marlon Williams is a handsome devil with a heart-stopping voice, who writes songs about vampires and horror films. This 27-year old, New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based singer is also a teller of tales.

By her own admission, composer Florence Price had two strikes against her.

"To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins," is how she began a 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the revered conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She added later, "I would like to be judged on merit alone."

Witnessing The Crossrhodes perform at the Tiny Desk instantly snapped me back to their early beginnings, just a few miles away from NPR headquarters. In 2001, on any given Monday night on U Street, music lovers would be treated to a magic show. Bar Nun's open mic night unearthed some of the finest MC's, poets and singers from the area, but they all took a back seat once the Crossrhodes stepped on stage. Week after week, the band passionately performed original material that jumped between society's woes and their own love lives, going from mere contestants to the main attraction.

The Thistle & Shamrock: The Long View

Feb 7, 2018

If you've been listening to Thistle for some years, perhaps you'll remember two unforgettable extended medleys of tunes: one from Breton harper and multi-instrumentalist Alan Stivell and the other from Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. Make their re-acquaintance this week!

The twin sisters in Ibeyi started their turn behind the Tiny Desk by singing an invocation of a West African Yoruba deity.

They come by their connection to the Afro-Cuban culture by way of their late father, Miguel "Anga" Diaz, an in-demand Cuban percussionist who was part of a vanguard musicians who reinvigorated Cuban music before he died prematurely at age 45 in 2006. The sisters, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz, carry that calling in their DNA, and how they've manifested it into their own art is nothing short of amazing.

Alynda Segarra's unamplifed voice in this Tiny Desk performance had no problem rising above the drums, congas, cello, violin, bass, keyboards, and an electric guitar. The passion for her Puerto Rican roots feels boundless. As Soul Captain for Hurray for the Riff Raff, she and her band weave tales of man's inhumanity to fellow humans, often from bigotry, intolerance and ignorance.