SXSW Music Review: NPR’s Tiny Desk Charms & Swaggers

Coziness tipped into the sublimely surreal

For over a decade now, Bob Boilen’s cramped workstation at NPR headquarters in D.C. has staged some of the biggest names in music. Tiny Desk concerts play out intimate, unorthodox, and sometimes hilariously awkward, but always engaging and often spectacular.

Steady Holiday (Photo by Doug Freeman)

For their first SXSW, the Tiny Desk team put together an impressive lineup to cap the final day of this year’s online Festival. As Boilen noted, SXSW and Tiny Desk emphasize artist discovery and diversity, and the hourlong showcase fulfilled the promise. The four unannounced acts met with immediate excitement in the comments scroll, some viewers thrilled at the inclusion and others marveling at the new finds.

Steady Holiday (Dre Babinski) opened with a ridiculously charming set. Tucked in the corner of her house in Los Angeles, complete with glowing fire and a puppy playing at her feet, the songwriter wound through this year’s Take the Corners Gently. She opened solo with “Living Life” before raising the blinds to reveal her band on the front porch for the poppier “Tangerine” and introspective “White Walls.” A googly-eyed printer next to her announced each song in the set list via paper.

The coziness tipped into the sublimely surreal before Babinski closed solo again, dreamily strumming beautiful lullaby “Love Me When I Go to Sleep.”

Duckwrth (Photo by Doug Freeman)

NPR’s Bobby Carter changed pace, introducing Duckwrth, perhaps the biggest act of the afternoon. Fronting a white-clad sixpiece, Jared Lee smoked sexy and smooth as hell with “Kiss U Right Now.” His hip-hop-laced R&B dripped over the wicked mellow bassline of “Make U Go” and flirted through “Birthday Suit,” breaking falsetto ranges as easy as he broke hearts. Closer “Super Good” launched the outfit into dance behind his skittering groove.

Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras brought the impressive Yasser Tejeda & Palotré into the mix, kicking into the Dominican fusion of latest LP Kijombo. The quartet laid heavy into the Latin and Afro-Dominican rhythms through the jazzy “Amor Arrayano,” while instrumental “La Culebra” coiled and slinked into a heart-racing breakdown. Mario Castro joined for closing highlight “Nuestras Raíces,” blowing tenor sax as the band burst to meet Tejeda’s clarion vocals.

clipping. (Photo by Doug Freeman)

Biggest surprise saved for last, NPR’s Stephen Thompson offered up the project of breakout Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, clipping. Filmed in triptych and taking the Tiny Desk instrumentation literally, Diggs and co-conspirators William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes blasted through five songs behind the inertia of the frontman’s breathless lyrical sprints. The producers’ provocative backing laid out a post-industrial wasteland of sound, at times eerily ambient (“Check the Lock”) or shockingly shattering (“The Show”) before the trio closed on the epic “Nothing Is Safe.”

“It’s an honor to be here, especially in these times,” noted Babinski at the close of her set. “It’s nice to figure things out together.”

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NPR Tiny Desk, SXSW Music 2021, Steady Holiday, Dre Babinski, Bobby Carter, Duckwrth, Jared Lee, Felix Contreras, Yasser Tejeda & Palotré, Mario Castro, Stephen Thompson, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

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