Photos by Gevar Bonham, Words by Ruben Gzirian
In a world where entire musical catalogues are available at a whim, the notion of true unexpected musical discovery is an increasingly rare joy. Within the realm of live music, the ability to pick and choose who you see is even more self-curated, which may explain why 9:30 Club has stopped announcing set times on Twitter to encourage people to show up for opening acts. NPR Music’s 10 Year Anniversary concert was a firm rebuke to how we enjoy music now, and the celebration was as much about NPR as it was about the unifying power of enjoying music for music’s sake.
Prior to Kronos Quartet kicking off proceedings, anticipatory murmurs from the sold-out crowd centered around who would perform. The secret set list was a stroke of genius on the part of NPR, and forced people to let go of expectations and accept the ride they were about to experience. It also allowed me to hear some very interesting predictions as to who would perform, with one guy next to me 1000% confident that Kendrick Lamar would show up (he didn’t). While Kronos Quartet were not exactly the group I expected to start off a festive night, they did set a tone of intimacy between musician and crowd. Aside from a bright neon “NPR Music” sign behind the main stage with accompanying lights, the stage was intentionally stark, which forced the audience to devote all of their attention to the artists. This was especially effective during performances by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Gaby Moreno, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
The acoustic prowess of Tweedy’s voice synched perfectly with his guitar allowed him to strip songs like Wilco’s “I’m the man who loves you” to their agonizing emotional core; the performance a personal highlight, completely catching me off guard with how powerful Tweedy’s solo interpretation was.
After a lively performance by Robert Glasper that included appearances by Bilal and The Roots’ Black Thought, Gaby Moreno performed a stirring set that oddly reminded me of the vocal fortitude of an Edith Piaf. Moreno’s voice cut like a knife, and her ability to command a presence through a vocal range as comfortable rejoicing empowerment as it is deconstructing pain made me an instant fan.
As for Justin Vernon, there really isn’t much I can say that would be surprising to anyone. He, and by extension Bon Iver, thrive in a setting devoid of frivolous glitz. Hearing Vernon engage the crowd made you realize that despite his recognition as a musical master and influencer on multiple genres, Vernon truly cherishes the ethereal power of his music. His performance of “Skinny Love” was awe inspiring.
Following immediately after Vernon is perhaps one of least enviable positions to be in, but Margo Price’s performance—one that included the very timely and socially relevant “Pay Gap”—eased any concerns that Vernon’s shadow was too great to overcome. Price’s voice was rooted in an emotional understanding of the anxiety of her subject matter that effortlessly shifted between social equality and female empowerment. Immensely talented, Price’s balance of introspection and remedy was sublime.
NPR’s celebration culminated with 2017 winners of the NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, Tank and the Bangas. The group, which formed after the band mates met at a New Orlean’s open mic show in 2011, was the human equivalent of taking energetic influences from rock, gospel, funk, and folk and blending it all with the type of lyrical gymnastics you’d only find at a slam poetry night. Lead singer Tarriona Ball was a ball of energy (no pun intended), and the crowd, who by that point had been pulled every which way musically, reacted with the enthusiasm of a second wind. It was the perfect end to a night that forced everyone in the crowd to let go of expectation and revel in being fine with the unknown.