NPR Music & Concerts

Music features, reviews and "first listens" from NPR.  Find more music at WUNC's  Back Porch Music.

Roots, Plugged In

Sep 24, 2014

When I put Jonah Tolchin's performance at Third Man Records on my schedule for Americana Fest, the annual gathering of roots-minded musicians that took over Nashville last week, I thought I was going to see a young artist playing old-timey music. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old New Jerseyite released an album, Clover Lane, that gently ranges from countryish ballads to uptempo numbers with a country blues feel.

There's something heartwarming about a family making music together. I'm especially sentimental when I see a father with a son, because my son and I made music in contra dance bands and Irish sessions as he grew up.

Years ago, while interviewing Jeff Tweedy before a Wilco concert, I asked him if he'd made music with his kids. He told me about going to his son Spencer's preschool class and writing a tune with all the kids; "Monkey Mess" was their final creation.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the unsolicited phone books we toss straight into the recycling bin is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on words we'd prefer never to hear associated with music.

Eleanor writes via email: "You've tweeted about your hatred of the word 'songstress.' Writing about music is tricky, but what words do you think should ALWAYS be avoided, and why?"

When The Mountain Goats' founder John Darnielle was a teenager, he went through a self-destructive phase.

"Your intelligence doesn't override your desire to destroy yourself," Darnielle tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really, really did not want to be in my own skin. I really wanted to get high and stay high."

When you've been in the music business as long as Nick Cave, inevitably someone will want to make a documentary about you. From grainy footage of his early '80s band The Birthday Party to a mid-'90s pop duet with Kylie Minogue that made him an unlikely MTV star, he's a tempting subject.

Alas, it is déjà vu all over again for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At midnight Saturday, the ASO musicians and management failed to meet the deadline to agree on a new contract after eight months of negotiations. That means the players, while still employees of the orchestra, are effectively locked out of the Woodruff Arts Center (the orchestra's home) and will not receive paychecks until a new agreement can be ratified.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Combos

Sep 11, 2014

We revel in the joyous sounds of multi-instrumental line-ups this week, shamelessly embracing anarchy in determining "what-goes-with-what."

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Throughout this month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's signature Next Wave Festival is celebrating a record label with which it shares history and purpose: Nonesuch, marking its 50th anniversary this year.

By now, three-fourths of the way through The Beatles' sort-of-official 50th-anniversary year, Fab Four fatigue is understandable.

We threw a curve ball at Justin Townes Earle. Despite his five albums full of well-loved songs, we asked him to play new material for this Tiny Desk Concert; songs we hadn't yet heard. Earle's new album Single Mothers comes out this week, and here he performs two tracks from that record: "White Gardenias," his nod to Billie Holiday, and "Burning Pictures."

These days, Jessica Lea Mayfield is all contrasts, starting with the way she sets her wistful voice against her shimmering guitar. It's got a harder edge to it than the rootsier music of her past. Then there's that cotton-candy hair and all the glitter; her guitar glitters, her eyes glitter, her shoes glitter. It's easier to talk about what isn't glittered — and mostly that'd be her lyrics. In the final song from both her album Make My Head Sing...

What's going on here, I can only guess, but here's what you're about to see: In the video below, the great musician Glenn Gould, supreme interpreter of Bach, is sitting at his living room piano on a low, low chair, his nose close to the keys. He's at his Canadian country house in his bathrobe.

Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen once quipped: "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." But it's tough to see much gloom when faced with the diversity of premieres and provocative programming around the country in the 2014-2015 season.

What immediately attracted me to Trampled by Turtles when I first saw the band was its speed, but the Minnesotans are about more than just blistering bluegrass. They also write beautiful, heartfelt folk-pop songs, as this Tiny Desk Concert demonstrates.

All three of these tunes come from Trampled By Turtles' new eighth album, Wild Animals. Watching the band gathered around one mic seemed perfectly right.

Set List

  • "Come Back Home"
  • "Winners"
  • "Lucy"


Sturgill Simpson doesn't fit today's common image of a country singer. When he arrived for his Tiny Desk Concert, the 36-year-old Kentucky native sauntered in sleepy-eyed, wearing jeans, a pair of old canvas tennis shoes, no socks and a well-worn button-down blue shirt, one of only two identical shirts he said he had in rotation while on tour. (He appeared a few nights later on Letterman wearing either the same garment or its twin.)

The Thistle & Shamrock: Live & Kicking

Aug 27, 2014

From the pubs and clubs of home to international festivals stages, some great live performances electrify this hour of music.

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Rodrigo Amarante has made the year's tenderest record. Cavalo is sonically rich and spare at the same time: Every instrument breathes and every sound blends, yet every moment is distinct. At Cavalo's core are heartfelt songs and Amarante's sweet, smoky voice.

The Thistle & Shamrock: A Broader Canvas

Aug 21, 2014

Follow the Celtic music trail to Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Galicia, Asturias, Wales and Brittany.

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"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.