NPR Music & Concerts

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

You need only watch Steve Marion's face. This fierce and lyrical guitar player, who performs as Delicate Steve, writes playful instrumental music led by hooky vocals — but there is no voice. His electric guitar is often played with a glass slide, mimicking a human being and bringing a palpable personality to his songs. The music swings from gospel to cartoon, melancholy to funny.

There's no shortage of poignant moments in I Called Him Morgan, Kasper Collin's mesmerizing new documentary about the life and death of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. One moment, about half an hour into the film, has stuck with me since I first saw it, lingering like an afterimage or the hook from a song.

This is the story of a hoax that almost was. Its motivating force was a hunger for fame, or infamy, or whispered legend in a particularly American sort of way. It begins on a beach somewhere in south Florida.

Chuck Berry Taught Me How To Be An American

Mar 21, 2017

I was an immigrant's kid growing up in the 1970s in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York. From an early age I learned that because I carried this weird name and my family ate, dressed and worshipped differently than most of my neighbors, being fluent in American popular culture connected me with others — especially the neighborhood boys who often ignored and sometimes threatened me. So I devoured everything I could find about baseball and watched an unhealthy amount of television.

When Chuck Berry died last week, the music-loving world rose to acknowledge his status as, in Bob Dylan's words, the Shakespeare of rock and roll. The man was 90; people were ready. Jon Pareles, chief pop critic of The New York Times, and David Remnick, editor at The New Yorker, both immediately published lengthy obituaries. Musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Questlove to Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones – Berry's famous protégé – rushed to pay tribute.

"There's nothing new under the sun / It's never what you do, but how it's done," Nas rapped on "No Idea's Original."

The Thistle & Shamrock: ThistleRadio New

Mar 15, 2017

Hear some of the recently added tracks that have grown our playlist to more than 1,000 tracks on ThistleRadio, The Thistle & Shamrock's popular round-the-clock music channel. The list includes music by Goitse, Gerda Stevenson, Sharlene Wallace and Lilt, among others.

Culture Wars

Mar 15, 2017

Last week, a fierce battle was pitched between the Austin, Texas-based music mega-festival South by Southwest (SXSW) and artists who took exception to a certain passage in the agreements which SXSW sends to its performers.

Symphony orchestras and opera companies across the country continually ask the same question: How do we attract a younger and more diverse audience?

Saturday night, I discovered something of an answer at the Washington National Opera's east coast premiere of Champion, a four-year-old opera by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.

In 21 seasons of attending WNO performances, I've never witnessed a more diverse crowd.

Practice is a physical activity, of course, but it's also hard mental work — if you're doing it right. A new video published by TED Ed gets down to the scientific nitty-gritty of what good practice looks like, and what it does to your brain. (Think axons and myelin, not "muscle memory" — muscles don't have "memory.")

It had been quite the week for Maren Morris: Four days before the 26-year-old strolled into NPR's offices, she'd pulled off a mighty duet with Alicia Keys during the 59th annual Grammys ceremony and taken home the evening's award for Best Country Solo Performance.

Life has its rules: You choose some; others choose you. This Stephin Merritt knows all too well. Child of a beatnik mom and folk-singing dad he never met until well into adulthood, the singer-songwriter and principal musician of indie pop's Magnetic Fields is both blessed and cursed by circumstance, like all living creatures, although perhaps more so, as his 50 Song Memoir suggests.

Ninet rocked the Tiny Desk in ways rarely seen.

As I watched one of the most famous entertainers in Israel today here at NPR, I flashed back to a 1976 concert I saw by a not-yet-famous Joan Jett. Ninet has that same fierce and honest conviction, is walking that same path that Jett did and poised to find notoriety in this country, which she recently began to call home.

Don't Bother Big Sean — He's Working

Feb 28, 2017

Real life will tell you different, but to let rap lists tell it an artist peaks in his late teens or early 20s. Most MC's debut albums are praised as their classics, even retroactively, while fans spend the rest of their careers pleading for them to return to their glory days. Nas has had a phenomenal career, but he still hasn't topped Illmatic. Jay Z wasn't popular until 1998, but his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt is seen as his undisputed best. And no matter how much he pushes the boundaries of hip-hop, many fans want "the old Kanye."

They're simply an abundance of euphoria. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band blasted the Tiny Desk with a Sousaphone, trumpets, saxophones, guitar and drums, at stunning volume, for a joyful celebration.

This band has been mixing be-bop and funk for 40 years. Around this time of year, when Mardi Gras revelry is fueled by New Orleans jazz, it was so good to feel their sounds in the office. Since today is Fat Tuesday — just before Lent and its fasts begin for some — we are sharing the party we hosted, filled with brass and sass from this fixture of great American music. Enjoy.

Hip-hop took off its cool over the weekend — and lit itself ablaze in the process.

Two seemingly unrelated threads this past weekend served as raucous, yin-and-yang reminders that hip-hop is not just a genre measured by charts, award show accolades and platinum plaques, but an organic culture unbound by industry rules.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame, with some assistance from Nile Rodgers and CBS This Morning, has announced its 2017 inductees, which include a first for the 38-year-old organization: rap.

Jay Z will be the first rapper inducted into the Hall and will be joined this year by one-man Swedish hit factory Max Martin; Motown founder Berry Gordy (who deferred his induction last year); Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of The Time; Robert Lamm, James Pankow and Peter Cetera of Chicago; and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

Little Simz: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 21, 2017

Simbi Ajikawo, who records and performs as Little Simz, first gained widespread recognition with the release of her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons back in 2015. Receiving praise from better-known artists like Kendrick Lamar and J.

The 'meaning' of music is an amorphous concept, as are the lessons of psychotropic experiences brought on by substances like lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Recent scientific studies have attempted to tackle both of these topics and gauge whether ingesting the substance impacted peoples' experiences with and interpretations of music. By request, the poet August Kleinzahler considers two recent studies, through the lens of his own musical and psychedelic dabblings.

Following the introduction of two bills into the state Legislature that would legally prohibit transgender Texans from using bathrooms that align with their gender identities, 142 artists — including Ewan McGregor, Amy Poehler, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Talib Kweli, Wilco and Whoopi Goldberg — have co-signed a letter beseeching the state senators and representatives to prevent the bills' passage.

Pages