Bob Boilen

This is likely the quietest Tiny Desk Concert ever.

The first time I saw Christopher Paul Stelling his face was red and his eyes were wide, singing as if he were about to burst apart, as if he had so much to tell us and too little time, as if his mind was racing faster than his tongue could keep up with. He's a singer with the spirit of Woody Guthrie both deep within and showing on his sleeve. Stelling has a new collection of songs he has titled Itinerant Arias, which he says "sounds a lot better than 'travelin' songs,'" but that's exactly what they are. Songs which have in common no single origin, or sense of place.

Since I see a lot of live music, I'm often asked to recommend concerts worth shelling out money for. So, starting today and hopefully each week to come, I'm going to take some time to tell you about the inspired shows I've recently seen. I'll post my photographs from the concerts and tour links when available, to assist in steering you towards events you might not think to check out.

I want to introduce you to Chad Clark, a Washington D.C. artist with the band Beauty Pill, which begins a tour today with a musical hero of Clark's and of mine, Arto Lindsay.

As the primary booker of the Tiny Desk Concerts, I have this self-imposed rule: No artist can come back for a second visit unless there's something wholly different about what they're doing. The first time alt-J played the Tiny Desk, in 2012, they came as a four-piece; electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They were a pretty new band, their album had been out a few months and they were playing in clubs for a couple hundred people, not much more.

(You can find a playlist of the artists I saw this week at the bottom of this piece.)

I didn't know much about Gracie and Rachel on first hearing "Only A Child." There's a terrific tension in the sound, an underpinning of mystery set against a baroque, but modern, pop foreground. Then I discovered that Gracie Coates and Rachel Ruggles seemingly embody the schism I heard in their song — Rachel's dark, classic violin is set against Gracie's more upbeat pop piano.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

It seemed like a simple video editing trick, run the tape backwards and it will look like this guy is driving backward. Well, it's no trick. The more I watch this video, for JEFF the Brotherhood's song "Punishment," the more jaw-dropping it is to see Harpreet Pappu careening on the highways and unpaved side roads of Bathinda, Punjab in India at full speed — and backwards.

Clowns and birthdays can fun or scary, depending on your life experience.

Sinkane opened its Tiny Desk Concert with a song that has been a bit of an anthem for me lately. "U'Huh" contains the Arabic phrase "kulu shi tamaam," which translates to "everything's great — it's all going to be all right."

I've always been an album guy. I love to hear an album in full, uninterrupted. But for the last eight years or so, my love of live music has superseded my love for studio recordings. Small clubs with great sound have propelled that passion. I also love the community small shows create. Thanks to the access my job provides, I see 400 to 600 bands a year.

Last May, Tash Sultana posted a self-made video, just her in her living room with guitar, laptop and a great song called "Jungle." Within five days it had drawn a million views.

Alex Napping is the name Alex Cohen's gave to her Austin-based guitar-pop band. On "Fault," Cohen explores her eating disorder in vivid blue and white, confronting her feelings of shame about the ailment.

Breaking news this morning: Dan Auerbach has been abducted by aliens to compete in intergalactic demolition derbies.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


It's somewhat rare to find three singers so in sync as The Wild Reeds' Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva and Mackenzie Howe. Rarer still is the trio's songwriting skills; think Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The real band Dream Wife — a name taken from a '50s film starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr — began as fake band in an art school project that was a This Is Spinal Tap-esque mockumentary. The project was created as a way for Rakel Mjoll to explore femininity and its tropes within pop music. Along with Isabella Podpadec and Alice Go, the trio put together the "fictional" Dream Wife, entered a film competition and won.

Overcoats' music has been undeniable for me from the first time I saw the duo perform. The deep friendship between Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell comes across in their vibrant harmonies and the bountiful dance parties that pop up as they go.

There's new music from Lucius: The New York quartet's song "Million Dollar Secret" will be featured on HBO's Girls this Sunday.

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.

Merchandise is, colloquially anyways, the engine that drives the boat, the rocket fuel that propels careers toward the stars!

Actually, according to Martin Atkins, author of Welcome To The Music Business, You're F****d!, merchandise is more like "the small hand-cranked trolley that inches up the funicular railway, inch by rusted, mangled inch, up the hill." Merchandise, particularly t-shirts, are the subject of this fun-filled Martin Atkins Minute (actually six fun-filled minutes).

Red Baraat's fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop and jazz is driven by frontman Sunny Jain's percolating playing of the dhol, a double-sided drum which forms the rhythmic lattice of support for their boisterous horns and guitar. And though Red Baraat graced the Tiny Desk five years ago, we had to have Jain's band back to celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival of color, of good over evil, and the coming of spring.

Out of over 6,000 entries — more submissions than we've ever received — Tank And The Bangas won, unanimously, this year's Tiny Desk Contest. I fully expected their victory performance here at NPR headquarters in D.C. to be celebratory. I didn't know we'd all end up in tears.

Here's a story of how a sentiment, the kernel of a piece, can blossom when the right person comes along. The songwriter is Minneapolis-by-way-of-Wisconsin's J.E. Sunde, but the key transformer was Monica Martin, of the band Phox.

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