What was born out of Bob Boilen’s frustration over not hearing artists at live venues due to the crowd’s noise has since become a pop culture phenomenon. The Tiny Desk Concert series has had artists such as The Cranberries, Sharon Van Etten, Ari Lennox, and Lizzo perform at the proverbial tiny desk (which functions as Boilen’s actual desk when not in use for tiny concerts). Considering the list of artists they’ve had play the Tiny Desk Concert, it’s no surprise that they invited Britanny Howard, the queen of blues herself, to play at the storied spot last October. Here, we take a look back at her iconic performance and discuss why many consider her as the modern face of the blues.
Tiny Desk Performance
Howard kicks off the performance with Stay High, a single from her debut album Jaime that was released back in September. From the very first note, you know that Howard and her eight-piece band are about to do something special. Howard revealed in a previous interview that the song’s dream-like feel is supposed to contrast the song’s morose lyrics — and that was on display in this performance, as she captured her audience in a trance.
Before jumping into her next song, Georgia, Howard shared how it was her take on what it was like to grow up as a “little young black gay girl having a crush on an older black girl and not knowing how to tell her what she was feeling.” This song, like many of the tracks on her debut solo album, exudes sincerity and was a real highlight of her Tiny Desk Concert set. Howard was able to show off her vocal chops, giving everyone in the room chills.
Her third song shows Howard at her best, as it had her back on her guitar. Indeed, Baby is a love song like no other. It starts normal enough but soon builds up into a crescendo of emotions that reverberates through everyone in the room. It even managed to draw an audible gasp from an audience member when the song peaked, which is a testament to the kind of performer Howard is.
For her final song, Howard gave the National Public Radio office a masterclass in the blues through her track, Goat Head. There’s something magical about how Howard can sing about something as heavy as racial discrimination, while still managing to captivate audiences and keep their eyes glued to the performance. This not only capped off her set, but it also cemented her place as a once in a generation talent.
Queen of the Blues
And Howard certainly is a generational talent, as she’s constantly been heralded as the modern queen of the blues. Her previous stint as the guitarist for the Alabama Shakes had her playing more guitar, showing off her mastery and skill with the instrument as she managed to bend the notes to her will. This is more impressive if you consider how straightforward Howard’s setup is.
In terms of effects pedals, Howard likes to keep it simple, which she owes to not being able to afford them when she started playing guitar. In a previous interview, she talked about using just an overdrive, a tuner, and another pedal which was the only one she named: The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi which is the same fuzz/sustain pedal used by The White Stripes and Pink Floyd — now rightly wielded by one of the vanguards of contemporary blues and soul. In fact, the fanciest thing in her setup would probably be her Gibson SG — a 1961 Les Paul Custom RI that’s quite uncommon but not impossible to find if you know where to look.
Indeed, there’s no questioning Howard’s place in the history of modern music, as her guitar playing coupled with her stellar songwriting has cemented her spot in the pantheon of the music greats. The only question left to answer now is: how far can she still go?