NPR Music & Concerts

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

The sun, moon, stars and planets have fueled artists' imaginations by day and night. Drift through this hour of music with Fiona Ritchie and you'll hear why the heavens provide solace for lonely hearts and fuel the dreams of romantics. Featured artists include Carlos Núñez Muñoz, Carreg Lafar and Talitha MacKenzie.

When Buddy, a preacher's son from Compton, turns to me with eyebrows raised on the elevator ride inside NPR's corporate headquarters, it's hard to tell if the question that comes next is in preparation for his performance or pure provocation.

"Can we smoke in here?!" he asks with a grin that elicits stifled laughter from his bandmates and a few newsroom journalists along for the ride. It's a blunt request, even from a self-professed "weed connoisseur," and it kicks off one of the most dramatic Tiny Desks in recent memory.

Jen Cloher came to the Harbor Stage at Newport with a fervor matched only by her volume. Her band gets some of that credit, with Jen's wife, Courtney Barnett, on electric guitar and Bones Sloane from Courtney's band on bass.

At the start of Day 2 at this year's Newport Folk Festival, Curtis Harding lit up the Fort stage with what he calls "slop 'n' soul," a soul-rock hybrid that woke up the crowd. Based in Atlanta, Harding has deep experience as a singer, songwriter and guitarist who uses the conventions of soul to look forward, not back. His powerful set included tracks from his two albums: the great Face Your Fear (one of NPR Music's 10 Best R&B Albums of 2017) and Soul Power, his 2014 debut.

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is a big thinker — that much is clear from his recorded output, with its deep and inspiring connection to the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico. But you also get that sense from his turn behind the Tiny Desk, where we can watch the concentration on his face and those of his adventurous band, the Spektral Quartet. This is life-affirming music with curious twists and turns, expertly performed by amazingly talented musicians.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Here We Go 2019!

Dec 31, 2018

Celebrate the dawn of the New Year with host Fiona Ritchie and the music of Bachue, Altan, Cathie Ryan, and Eddi Reader.

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

Fifty years after recording "Do the Reggay" in 1968, Toots Hibbert performed the most exuberant set I saw at this year's Newport Folk Festival. Toots and the Maytals helped create reggae in the '60s with some of the most creative and exciting records to come out of Jamaica. The legend's Newport set was packed with songs from throughout his career. The oldest, "I'll Never Grow Old," was originally released in 1963 — when Hibbert was only 21 — and captured the spirit he brought to the show. Hibbert played with joy and energy, keeping his terrific band on its toes.

Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia, aka Shakey Graves, began his Newport Folk Festival set by raising a little hell. Before beginning the incendiary "Word of Mouth," he explained: "I'm gonna kick this off with a waltz that I wrote years ago that has sadly become more and more relevant every year I play it. It's a song about not listening to people and listening to people at the same time."

Glen Hansard is passionate about connecting with a crowd. At the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, that crowd was hushed and he went deep. From the opening song, the Swell Season favorite "When Your Mind's Made Up," through more traditional Irish tunes with fiddler Rosie MacKenzie and Brendan Begley on accordion, Hansard's performance was enthralling.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Celtic Christmas

Dec 26, 2018

Join Fiona Ritchie as she shares reflections on the season of joy with old carols and dance tunes with Cherish the Ladies, Al Petteway and Amy White, Phil Cunningham and Chris Thile.

The finale of the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, A Change is Gonna Come, was a powerful and challenging take on how American music has framed the meaning of civil rights. Masterfully produced by Jon Batiste, the set brought together gospel, folk music, soul, and even the national anthem in captivating and startling arrangements (the Dap-Kings on "This Land is Your Land," to take just one example).

There's electricity in the atmosphere at Newport Folk Festival as evening begins, the summer sun sinking lower in the sky between cotton candy-colored clouds. As the penultimate performer on the main stage, Courtney Barnett's return to Newport — she also played the festival in 2015 — felt like a cause for celebration as daylight faded.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Gifts

Dec 19, 2018

Take some time over the holidays to allow the spirit of the season to wash over you with artists Cherish the Ladies, Ye Vagabonds and Pierre Bensusan.

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

Growing up in the '90s, there was never a Christmas without Amy Grant's music. Home for Christmas, in particular, was a favorite around our household, its string-swept nostalgia wrapped around the family den like a warm blanket and a plate of cookies. So when I invited the Nashville pop singer to perform our annual holiday Tiny Desk, I had to bring my mom.

Cuba is known as much for their pianists as their percussionists — you'll see why with this performance.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Roots And Branches

Dec 13, 2018

This week, Fiona Ritchie explores the evolving sounds that contribute to a new Celtic music, featuring Solas, Robin Bullock and Capercaillie. We hear Celtic music inspired by jazz, classical arrangements and world rhythms.

It's been said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. In H.E.R.'s case, you get two. She stunned us as a special guest for Daniel Caesar's Tiny Desk concert earlier this year, in an appearance that showcased her vocal mastery. That earned her an invite to play again, front-and-center. She attacked her second go 'round with more fervor than the first, highlighting her skills as a multi-instrumentalist, maneuvering between acoustic and electric guitars, then the Fender Rhodes.

Settle into the season by tuning into some fresh new music recently arrived at The Thistle & Shamrock offices in the U.S. and Scotland. Fiona Ritchie features new releases from Cherish the Ladies, Keith Murphy and Brass Lassie.

Wu-Tang Clan: Tiny Desk Concert

Dec 5, 2018

The Wu-Tang Clan gathered at the Tiny Desk to commemorate the 25 years since the release of the group's landmark album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). With more than 60 albums between the various members, The Clan's combined discography left them spoiled for choice when it came to narrowing down the set list for their performance. The result was an extended, 20-minute medley of songs from across the group's iconic catalog.

Sometimes the world turns obstacles into magic. When Dirty Projectors let us know they couldn't make it to the band's Tiny Desk performance until late in the day, we were sad because the clocks had recently turned back for the fall, we knew that our beautiful, natural light would be gone and it'd be dark.

When a baby grand piano rolls into the office for a Tiny Desk concert, you expect something special. But none of us could have imagined what it's like to see 15-year old Joey Alexander play that piano with such mastery. The thing is, when you see him play live, you quickly forget his age and get lost in the intense focus of his performance. Alexander and his stellar supporting cast — Reuben Rogers on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums — form a tight trio, locking eyes as Alexander's compositions unfold.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Family Gathering

Nov 28, 2018

A treasure trove of music is the legacy some families pass along across the generations. Join Fiona Ritchie and Mary Ann Kennedy to hear one family's songs of work, worship, land, sea and love.

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

Some days, you can hear a go-go band revving up the party or a pianist busting the keys wide open, luring NPR staff to the Tiny Desk. But in the hushed performances, your ears need to lean into the sound so that your entire being can take in every fingerpick of string and each hummed melody.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Bass Rock

Nov 21, 2018

This week, hear some stunning acoustic and electric bass players, including Riccardo Del Fra and Alain Genty.

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

When dvsn visited NPR for this Tiny Desk concert, it reminded me of the first time I saw them two years ago in New York City. They decided to wash the desk in vibrant blue, purple and orange lighting, brought in by dvsn's team to make the space feel like a concert hall. And while the audience at NPR was almost as densely packed as that NYC venue, it felt much like my live introduction to the group — grandiose in presentation, but at the same time, deliberately intimate in delivery.

The group is new, but all of the members of boygeniusJulien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers — are Tiny Desk Concert alumae.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Islanders

Nov 14, 2018

From far Northerly Shetland to the Hebrides of the West, you'll be immersed in the music of the islands this week. Fiona Ritchie is your guide for an hour of music as fresh as a salt sea breeze, as highly charged as waves tumbling upon deserted beaches and as majestic as mountain wilderness on rocky shorelines.

The story of Bernie and the Believers is the most powerful I've ever come across at the Tiny Desk. It's about a beautiful act of compassion that ultimately led to this performance, and left me and my coworkers in tears.

Midway through Half Waif's Tiny Desk, singer Nandi Rose Plunkett stops to let us all know that this particular Half Waif show is extra special. "So today we're actually 'Full Waif,' because I am joined by my dear friends," she says. "These are all musicians who have played with the band Half Waif over the past five years, but we've never all played together until now! So thanks for the opportunity to get 'Full Waif' together."

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