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Jeff Miers: Local bands enter contest for NPR's game-changing 'Tiny Desk'

The pendulum swings. Physics dictates that it will, regardless of anyone's opinion. And so it stands to reason that, as popular music has become increasingly inflated, pretentious, bombastic, and firmly devoted to the "more (and bigger and flashier) is always better" aesthetic, the real action is taking place on the other end of the spectrum.

This might explain why NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, launched by All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen in 2008, has become a go-to for discerning music fans sick of trolling Spotify's oddly curated – read "completely skewed toward what's already popular or what they plan to help make popular" - new release page, or scrolling endlessly through You Tube for new and worthy music-related matter.

Everything about Tiny Desk is stripped back, to the point where artists are forced to let their real-time performance speak for itself. There's nowhere to hide. The stage set is quite literally host Boilen's desk and surrounding work-space. The musicians are crammed together, the audience is small, the setting informal. The unspoken subtext here is a desire to return music-making to a human scale.

It's working. The series has racked up millions of views, has made a few underground stars along the way, and has forced many artists to re-contextualize their relationship with their art, turning up the signal and turning down the noise. (Case in point: T-Pain, known for bathing his voice in Auto-Tune, played with a band of humans and sang without the safety net of pitch-correction during his Tiny Desk turn. Beautifully, as it turned out. His set has been viewed some 15 million times.)

I've lost count of the Tiny Desk shows that blew my mind, or came close to it, but they include sets by Lianne LaHavas, Thundercat, Moses Sumney, Tash Sultana, Trey Anastasio, Anderson Paak & the Free Nationals, Jason Isbell, Ani DiFranco, Amine, Christian Scott, the Roots, Wilco, St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Common, Donny McCaslin, Tyler the Creator, and 2017 Tiny Desk Concert Contest winner Tank & the Bangas. Many of these artists were either unknown or relatively new to me at the time of my first viewing. Now, they're all in my regular listening rotation. (You can watch and listen for yourself here.)

From the beginning, Tiny Desk has been introducing underground and up-and-coming acts. Though it took several years for the series to broaden its horizons beyond the indie-folk that often seems like NPR's bread and butter, the roster is much closer to full and balanced. Hip-hop, jazz, funk, rock, soul and various permutations now share the space with nu-roots hipster fare. The desire to offer new artists a spotlight has become fully entrenched as policy.

In 2015, NPR launched the Tiny Desk Concert Contest, where any musical act could submit a video of an original song and performance - at a desk - with the grand prize being a Tiny Desk gig of their own. Mohawk Place sound engineer Tony DeRosa – an accomplished singer, guitarist and songwriter – noticed that a healthy number of Buffalo artists had entered the contest. DeRosa teamed with Mohawk talent-booker Marty Boratin to gather together as many of the local submitting artists as they could for a concert. Nine artists performed that year. At 7 p.m. April 22, the fourth annual Mohawk Place Tiny Desk Contest Concert takes place. Boratin and DeRosa are hoping to have the majority of the 23 Buffalo-area artists who submitted this year perform a 15-20 minute set at the show, a day previous to NPR's announcement of the winner.

A list of area artists who made videos for submission runs the gamut represented by our vibrant music scene – hip-hop, indie rock, jam bands and singer-songwriters are represented by entrants like Aqueous, Naryan Padmanabha, PA Line, Emma Tyne, Bethany Rhiannon, Crystal Root, Shelby & Andy, the Transindental KARMAcist, White Wolves.

Lest anyone doubt the power of the Tiny Desk to shape our culture, it should be noted that 2017 winner Fantastic Negrito won the Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy Award that year.

Best of luck to all our entrants.

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