Watch 450 NPR Tiny Desk Concerts: Intimate Performances from The Pixies, Adele, Wilco, Yo-Yo Ma & Many More

In times past, hap­pen­ing upon just the right radio sta­tion, record store, or tape trad­ing com­mu­ni­ty were some of the few serendip­i­tous ways of dis­cov­er­ing new music. And in those days, one faith­ful cura­tor of inno­v­a­tive new sounds, BBC DJ John Peel, nev­er dis­ap­point­ed. Because of a law lim­it­ing the amount of record­ed music radio could play, his name became syn­ony­mous with the hun­dreds of inti­mate per­for­mances punk, new wave, reg­gae, and oth­er bands record­ed live in his stu­dio. While the “Peel Ses­sions” will for­ev­er live in leg­end (stream some here), the man him­self passed away in 2004, and the musi­cal land­scape he helped cre­ate has changed irrev­o­ca­bly.

And yet, Peel’s ani­mat­ing spir­it lives on, most espe­cial­ly in NPR’s Tiny Desk Con­certs, live in-stu­dio per­for­mances record­ed “at the desk of All Songs Con­sid­ered host Bob Boilen.” Since 2008, Boilen has invit­ed estab­lished and up-and-com­ing artists alike to his desk, cap­tur­ing loose, unguard­ed, stripped-down, per­for­mances that sound like they’re hap­pen­ing in your liv­ing room.

Gui­tarists unplug, drum­mers trade their sticks for brush­es, and we not only get to lis­ten to old and new favorites; we get to watch them—like the Pix­ies at the top—up close as well. This per­for­mance, from 2014, gar­nered “the largest crowd we’d ever assem­bled for a Tiny Desk Con­cert,” writes Boilen, and fea­tured newest mem­ber Paz Lenchan­tin trad­ing her bass for vio­lin.

Where the Pix­ies usu­al­ly fill are­nas with their eeri­ly-qui­et-to-deaf­en­ing­ly-loud songs, the group fur­ther up, Dirty Dozen Band, can eas­i­ly fill pub­lic squares, foot­ball fields, and parade routes with­out stacks of over­driv­en amps. Hear­ing them explode in Boilen’s office with their ram­bunc­tious funk is a real treat, as is the larg­er-than-life voice of Adele, above, scaled down to col­lege cof­fee­house lev­els of close­ness.

Though Tiny Desk Con­certs often show­case pop, hip-hop, folk, coun­try, and indie stars—like Wilco, below—and even clas­si­cal stars like Yo-Yo Ma, above, it just as often intro­duces us to musi­cians we’ve nev­er heard, or seen, before, and gives us the chance to get to know them with­out the usu­al trap­pings of mar­ket­ing and boil­er­plate PR, or loud, crowd­ed clubs with bad acoustics and no vis­i­bil­i­ty.

The cur­rent home­page fea­tures a hand­ful of incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed musi­cians you’re unlike­ly to run across in most major venues. At least for now. Had he lived to see Tiny Desk Con­certs, and its preser­va­tion of a radio cura­to­r­i­al tra­di­tion, John Peel, I think, would have been proud. See more per­for­mances from The Nation­al, Susan Vega, Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, Steve Ear­le, and many, many more—450 con­certs in all—at NPR Music on Youtube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 15 Hours of the John Peel Ses­sions: 255 Tracks by Syd Bar­rett, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Ban­shees & Oth­er Artists

Hear a 9‑Hour Trib­ute to John Peel: A Col­lec­tion of His Best “Peel Ses­sions”

Peter Framp­ton Plays a Tiny Desk Con­cert for NPR, Fea­tur­ing Acoustic Ver­sions of His Clas­sic Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Hazel says:

    I don’t think that the Tiny Desk con­certs are as com­pa­ra­ble to the Peel ses­sions as you make out. The lat­ter were gen­er­al­ly record­ed in prop­er record­ing stu­dios and not as you imply in Peel’s radio stu­dio. Here is an image of Mai­da Vale 4 where a lot of ses­sions were record­ed, it’s not real­ly “inti­mate” is it?

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fair point, very dif­fer­ent atmos­phere. But con­sid­er­ing the way many rock/pop records are made—over a peri­od of weeks/months/years, in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent stu­dios, with the musi­cians only rarely in the same place at the same time—Peel ses­sions sound “inti­mate” to me. They were gen­er­al­ly record­ed in a few takes and a few hours with the whole band play­ing togeth­er at once, so they’re com­pa­ra­ble to “live” ses­sions.

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