NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts give a small stage to Fanfarlo and acts of all sizes

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

The British alt-rock band Fanfarlo has played a few odd venues in its three years of existence -- a Scottish cloisters, a London taxicab -- but it has never had a gig at some guy's desk. Until the other day, that is, when the group's five members wedged themselves into a corner beside a desk in a District office building.

With the sound echoing down the fifth-floor corridor, the band played a few songs from its latest album. The audience consisted of perhaps 40 office workers, some of whom bobbed along to the music without ever looking up from their computer screens.

The office in question belongs to National Public Radio, and the desk is the work space of Bob Boilen, a veteran music producer for NPR. Each week, more or less, the little space becomes an unlikely stage for mini-concerts by an eclectic group of famous, near-famous and downright obscure musicians.

Stephen Thompson, Boilen's colleague, coined the name for the series of three- and four-song sets: Tiny Desk Concerts.

Sir Tom Jones, the Welsh heartthrob, sang here, as did twangy folk artist Gillian Welch and Somali-born rapper K'naan. Bluegrass and gospel godfather Ralph "Man of Constant Sorrow" Stanley offered an a cappella "Amazing Grace." Oddball party-hearty rocker Andrew W.K. banged out a couple of rambling and surprisingly sweet improvisational keyboard pieces. ("I have no idea what I'm doing," W.K. explained at one point, "and that's the state I want to be in.")

The shows, which NPR videotapes and turns into webcasts and podcasts, are as intimate and minimal as the name implies. There are no amps, no special lighting. An electric keyboard is about as elaborate as the instrumentation gets. There isn't room for much more, anyway.

Jones, who confessed to being nervous and perspired accordingly, was accompanied by a lone guitarist when he sang "Green Green Grass of Home" and three other numbers at the desk back in March. Stanley's "show" was indeed tiny, at just over five minutes long. When jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas played, one of his sidemen christened the spot by emptying his spit valve on the carpet.

The concerts started last year after Boilen and Thompson attended the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin. They went to see Laura Gibson, a folk balladeer, but the crowd noise made it nearly impossible for them to hear the soft-spoken singer. Thompson suggested that a performer like Gibson was better heard in a more intimate setting -- something like Boilen's desk, which is tucked into a quiet, cluttered corner of NPR's building on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Eureka.

The shows have become popular enough on NPR's music Web site (http://www.npr.org/music) and YouTube that music publicists now call Boilen and Thompson to push clients. Most shows draw a few thousand hits, though Swell Season's TDC has attracted more than 270,000 since it went up on YouTube.

Boilen likes to keep things diverse; he has had hip-hop artists and R&B singers, chamber orchestras and classical guitarists. One act, the duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, falls into an almost unclassifiable category, playing a kind of flamenco-heavy metal hybrid.

Many of the musicians are not well known, but a bona fide star occasionally paddles into view. Moby will do an upcoming show, and Boilen says he almost landed Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen when their tours came through Washington recently. Well, at least there were conversations with their reps about it, he says.

Why would any musician put himself or herself in such a setting, with all of the glamour and acoustical trappings of a cubicle farm?

"This puts us one step closer to our dream of working in an office someday," quipped Fanfarlo's lead singer, Simon Balthazar, after his group's mini-show this week. In fact, band mate Cathy Lucas said, "we didn't actually know what was coming. We just heard 'acoustic session' and thought, 'Cool.' And then we got here and [Boilen] told us, 'You're playing at my desk.' It was great."

Surprise and spontaneity -- that's kind of the idea, Boilen says. "I think artists like to put themselves out on a limb a bit," he says. "There's some sense of excitement not knowing what's going to happen. . . . If you're really an artist, you'll take a chance."


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