NPR Music & Concerts

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

There's sweetness to Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear's music that makes me smile, and then there's so much more. I first saw the Kansas City mother-and-son duo perform last fall in Nashville's Blue Room, a small, perfect-sounding stage at Third Man Records. The bluesy roots of the music suited the space, and the sound — with young Madisen Ward's powerful, quivering voice backed by his mother Ruth — had a homespun feel.

ABBA's Essential, Influential Melancholy

May 23, 2015

Dressed in black and greeted by Barry and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, former ABBA members Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson took their 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seriously and sincerely. While Lyngstad definitively dismissed reunion rumors, Andersson spoke of the quartet's musical roots and emotional core.

The Thistle & Shamrock: At The Edge

May 22, 2015

Hear music with an evolving Celtic roots sound, inspired by jazz and classical arrangements and driven by contemporary and worldly rhythms. This week's episode includes music from Solas, Scrüj MacDuhk and John Rae.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

We rarely invite Tiny Desk alumni back to the confines of Bob Boilen's work space, but we couldn't resist this time. Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and Grammy-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux have both given solo Tiny Desk performances. Since then they've paired up for concerts and a new album of works composed especially for their combination of instruments.

Rickie Lee Jones needs no introduction. Seriously. The singer-songwriter is so elementally articulate, so gifted at grasping both the rawest and the most complicatedly cooked emotions in her compositions, that critical framing best comes after the experience of listening to her.

They've made music together since they were young teens, coming together in Edinburgh from places as far apart as Ghana and Maryland. Young Fathers' hip-hop-infused poetry is intense; you can hear that on the group's new album, White Men Are Black Men Too.

A Mississippi car accident in 1937 cut short the life of Bessie Smith.

She was just 43 years old. But she'd already established her legacy as "Empress of the Blues" — a pioneering American performer who demanded respect and equal pay in a world dominated by men and controlled by whites.

She'd also achieved a degree of infamy for her boozing, her brawling and her sexual appetites.

B.B. King And The Majesty Of The Blues

May 16, 2015

B.B. King, the legendary blues musician, died Thursday after spending much of the month in hospice care. He was 89.

Born Riley B. King in Indianola, Miss., in 1925, King began his life on a plantation, where he was born the son of a sharecropper. Speaking to Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1996, King remembered an early life without telephones, electricity or any outside opportunities. "A lot of the people, including myself in the early years, just thought this was it, you raise your families and you get old, you die, your families take over, kids, what have you," King said.

Great fado singers sound as if they carry the weight of the world's sadness. They don't just wear their hearts on their sleeves — they bare their souls.

The nominees for the 2015 Americana Honors and Awards were announced today at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. This year's slate shows how the definition of Americana is gently expanding to include more generationally, racially and stylistically diverse stars, while remaining grounded in its country-leaning, singer-songwriter-dominated definition of roots music.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Fresh Takes

May 12, 2015

This week on The Thistle & Shamrock, established artists and old friends — including Damien Connolly, Ályth McCormack, Altan and more — bring new music to the show.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The following should not be construed as legal advice — just good advice. We asked Julian Petty, who represents Ali, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and the estate of Biggie Smalls — and at one time worked with Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder — to come see us at Microphone Check as part of our continued effort to put ever more people on game.

Bellows' debut album, Blue Breath, was among my Top 20 records of last year. What sets Bellows apart from thousands of other guitar-bass-drums bands out there is its heart. Oliver Kalb sings about things that matter to him in ways that matter to me. His sing-song, matter-of-fact phrasing and guitar melodies are memorable, and the harmonies are lovely, with the staying power to drift in my head for days on end.

We met at a ping-pong party in Iceland. Brendan Angelides introduced himself as a musician and friend of Jónsi and Alex Somers, who were hosting the party. When I came home from the Iceland Airwaves music festival, I listened to the music Angelides makes under the name Eskmo, and was intrigued.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora continue to grow more popular with music fans — but not with musicians, who complain they used to earn more in royalties from CD sales and music downloads. Songwriters say they've been hit even harder, and the Department of Justice appears to be taking their complaints seriously: It's exploring big changes to the music publishing business for the first time since World War II.

If you look at the top songs on the Billboard charts, most of them were written by at least one professional songwriter. It's a real job.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Westward

May 6, 2015

On this week's episode of The Thistle & Shamrock, hear wild fiddle music and singing in the language of the Gael. Music from western places in Ireland and Scotland is the music of lonely, rugged mountainsides and sea-swept coastlines.

Click the audio link to hear music from Capercaillie, Flook, Niamh Parsons, Peatbog Faeries and more.

Vijay Iyer is probably best known as a pianist and bandleader in the African-American creative improvisational tradition — most say "jazz" for short — though he's also several other things in music. He's a composer of chamber, large-ensemble and mixed-media works; a Harvard professor; a student of Indian classical music; a father and New York City resident. Committed as he is to multiplicity, there's one place where you can see many of his interests distilled at once: in the trio he's led for nearly a dozen years.

In a recital hall at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, a group of musicians got together to play Jean-Baptiste Singelée's 1857 quartet for saxophones on some very old, very special instruments.

Every now and then, if we are extremely lucky, we are witness to a musical game changer. That is the rare musician who single-handedly alters the direction of a genre though the power of musical vision and artistry.

Diego El Cigala is one of those game changers.

While he comes from the world of flamenco, he has deftly expanded his expressive range by applying his unmistakable voice to boleros, Spanish copla, tangos, jazz and various combinations of all of the above.

There's a quiet and a calm from José González that amplify his words. This has never been truer than on his new album, Vestiges & Claws. The songs are full of abstract imagery — more paintings than stories. He performed this song, "With The Ink of A Ghost," at my desk.

Idle as a wave
Moving out at sea
Cruising without sound
Molding what's to be
Serene between the trace
Serene with the tide and ink of a ghost

Beauty Pill's The Unsustainable Lifestyle was a promising debut album, an immediately accessible patchwork of the band's hometown, Washington, D.C. In 2004, the record left fans wondering what would happen next, but they would have to wait 11 years. That's because bandleader Chad Clark's heart tried to kill him.

People always ask me, "What's your favorite Tiny Desk Concert?" Well, right now it's the one recently performed by DakhaBrakha. The creative quartet from Kiev, Ukraine make music that sounds like nothing I've ever heard, with strands of everything I've ever heard. There are rhythms that sound West African and drone that feels as if it could have emanated from India or Australia. At times, DakhaBrakha is simply a rock band whose crazy homeland harmonies are filled with joy.

Waka Flocka Flame Is Hiring

Apr 24, 2015

They say you can't overestimate the power of a good handshake. If that's the case, my job interview with Waka Flocka Flame was doomed from the start.

I went in for the sort of greeting I'm familiar with -– a clasp that pivots up into a grip and pulls in for a hug — but it unexpectedly continued. He raised our wrists to shoulder level, pointed his fingers out, locked them with mine ... but by that point I was long since lost. He looked at me and smiled sympathetically. First impressions, I thought, resigned, are everything.

The tragic story of Cambodia in the '60s and '70s is well-known: It became engulfed in the Vietnam War, then more than a million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Doctors, lawyers, teachers — educated people — were targeted in the communist takeover. So were artists and singers.

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