Live Music Podcasts: NPR’s All Songs Considered and KEXP’s Live In-Studio Performances
This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
What’s Making Me Happy This Week is something that’s been around for a while but finally has my attention – live music podcasts. Earlier this week I found myself listening to a 3-song set from Passion Pit on a late 2012 episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered. For this set, Michael Angelakos performed with just a single band member, Ian Hultquist, with Angelakos on vocals and electric piano and Hultquist using very soft simple guitar lines. This stripped-down arrangement was a very different way to hear Passion Pit’s normally upbeat hits, “Sleepyhead,” “Take a Walk” and “Carried Away.” I won’t say it was better than the originals – those songs are exceptional and I appreciate the contrast between Angelakos’ light, catchy, dance-able tunes and serious, thoughtful lyrics – but it did bring another dimension to these songs that was worth exploring. Often rock or pop acts attempt to perform acoustic or bare-bones versions of popular songs which pale dramatically to the originals; in this case, Angelakos discovered something new in his music and NPR provided the outlet to express it. It was so good that it got me thinking about how much I’ve been listening to and enjoying live music podcasts of late.
This abbreviated Passion Pit set was one of the many “Tiny Desk Concerts” available on the All Songs Considered podcast. These are 10-20 minute recordings of performances done inside the NPR offices, often but not always stripped down to very little instrumentation. Because of the short sets, and because they have the ability (actually, the requirement) to alter their songs for the situation, artists perform only their most popular songs in these “concerts.” Instead of being bored by the songs, as artists sometimes get with their hits, they are invigorated by the opportunity of transforming them. This often results in some great performances, like the one from Passion Pit, or like one I should have mentioned in “What’s Making Me Happy Last Week,” the set from Amanda Palmer where I first heard the “Ukulele Anthem.” Moreover, if a performance doesn’t work for you, it’s no big deal – it’ll be over in just a few minutes. For these reasons the “Tiny Desk Concerts” are my favorite brand of live music available for download right now.
The best thing about live music podcasts though is that you don’t have to stick to your one favorite style – so many options are available and can be stored and/or retrieved free and on demand. If you like in studio sets, my favorite is KEXP’s Live Performances Podcast. New performances are posted often – at least 5 per month, often more – and of course (since this is KEXP) are of the best and most cutting-edge indie bands. In just the past few weeks I’ve listened to some excellent in-studio performances from the Lumineers, DIIV, and James Mercer. The podcasts are normally 20-30 minutes long though often they consist of only 4 songs with an interview with the band in between songs 2 and 3. I love these interviews, but if you only want the music they’re easy enough to skip over. Also, the podcasts typically correspond to new album releases from the artists, so you get to hear live versions of music at the time (or sometimes even before) it s released. Each of the three artists I mentioned above appeared on the podcast the same week that their 2012 album dropped.
Finally, circling back to NPR’s All Songs Considered, in addition to the “Tiny Desk Concerts” this podcast often offers full high-quality shows from artists’ festival performances (and occasionally the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.), dating back as far as 2007. Last week I listened to a full 80 minute set from the National recorded live at a 2007 D.C. concert. It was great to hear the National perform some deeper cuts off of Alligator and Boxer that they might not play today. You can go back and hear older shows from a tremendous array of indie bands – Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, the Walkmen, Okkervil River, Peter Bjorn and John, Broken Social Scene … the list goes on and on. And that sample is just from 2007. On my to-do list: a 2-hour performance by Liz Phair of Exile in Guyville in its entirety, a 50-minute set from the Alabama Shakes at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival, a 60-minute set from the Decemberists live at 2011’s Sasquatch Festival, and pretty much all of SXSW 2010. So much live music, all high quality, all really good bands carefully chosen by these two tastemakers, all completely free (and legal), and all in my pocket for retrieval anytime I want it. And because they aren’t streaming or via app, they don’t require an internet or cellular connection so they’re there for me on my interminable NYC subway rides. And did I mention they’re free?
And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.