Susan Behrends Valenzuela
With nearly 20,000,000 views, it is safe to say that watching NPR’s Tiny Desk series has become one of the internet’s favorite pastimes. Featuring artists big and small, the online series has amassed an enormous online following, which allows fans to experience their favorite musicians in a stripped-down, intimate environment. The NPR headquarters in Washington D.C. serves as the concert venue — more specifically at the desk of “All Songs Considered” host and producer Bob Boilen. True to its name, performers sit behind a tiny desk — some accompanied by a band, others flying solo — to give a live audience a mini concert featuring some of their favorite songs.
In response to the pandemic, NPR began their “Tiny Desk (Home) Concert” series, stating on YouTube that “the Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future.” After more than a year without live performances, Tiny Desk serves as the perfect live music placeholder until we can be together again.
With that said, here is a list of some of the most memorable and must-see Tiny Desk performances:
The Blue Man Group
The Blue Man Group gave one of the most uniquely entertaining (and perhaps the most elaborately set-up) Tiny Desk concerts out there. In an unconventional opening to their performance, the blue-painted trio is seen running through NPR’s headquarters wreaking havoc on the staff. The group uses a variety of materials to craft original instruments of their own designs, such as an assemblage of PVC pipes beat with mallets. Playing their instrumental songs, “Vortex,” “The Forge” and “Meditation for Winners” — the third enhanced by an audience-engaging record simulating a guided meditation track — their eccentric use of sounds entrances the audience. Restricted to the size of Tiny Desk, the group makes the most out of the space they are given. They end their energetic performance with confetti cannons and streamers, a rarity for the usually toned-down nature of the series.
Lizzo’s powerful voice and infectious energy brings immediate life to the Tiny Desk audience as she belts out her opening song, “Cuz I Love You.” Following with the tracks “Truth Hurts” and “Juice,” the singer entertains the audience with both her humor and her biggest hits. Breaking out her iconic flute for the final showstopper, Lizzo demonstrates her ability to create some of the catchiest tunes in music today. Spreading messages of positivity and love throughout her seventeen-minute performance, Lizzo manages to create a welcoming and lively atmosphere for both the crowd and those watching at home. Contrasting with her usually glitzy performances featuring dozens of backup dancers, the concert will leave your toes tapping under her live performances resume.
As a result of the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, Jacob Collier’s second Tiny Desk appearance looked quite different from his first. Restrictions on group gatherings made playing with a band difficult, but this did not phase Collier. In a fascinatingly complex performance, the musician — along with his three edited clones — performed his songs “All I Need,” “Time Alone With You” and “He Won’t Hold You.” This creative presentation fits perfectly with his unique sound and style, and is sure to bring a smile to anyone’s face. Humorously interacting with his “band” and demonstrating his immense musical talent, he and “the Jacobs” harmoniously blend vocals, keyboard, guitar, bass and drums into a set of funky and joyful songs that will leave you entertained and awed by his genius.
Billie Eilish’s “Tiny Desk (Home) Concert” might make you do a double take when you realize that she — accompanied by her brother FINNEAS — are not actually in the Tiny Desk office. Instead, the duo sits in front of what later reveals itself to be a cardboard replica of the notorious desk as they perform stripped-down versions of her recent hits, “my future” and “everything i wanted.” The intimate performance environment makes us feel as though we are right there with them. Without her usual complex backing tracks, the delicate nature of her vocals shines through, as well as the effortless way their musical abilities mesh together.
It feels wrong to compile a list of must-see Tiny Desk concerts without acknowledging its origins. Diving deep into the NPR archives, you will find folksinger Laura Gibson, the very first musician to appear on the well-established series. Looking like a scene straight out of “The Office,” the 2009 video quality and “small crowd of curious office workers,” as the YouTube video description describes it, demonstrates just how far the production has come in the past twelve years. Stephen Thompson and Bob Boilen, the brains behind the show’s long-lasting legacy, jump in after her first song, “Hands in Pockets,” to explain their inspiration for the intimate performance. Boilen says in the video, “At the end of the concert, we realized we hardly heard a word Laura sang.” He continues, alleviating their problem by asking her to play at his desk. “Maybe it’s the start of something and maybe it’s not.”
Contact Candace Patrick at [email protected]