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.
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
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?
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.