Bent By Nature live performances, 1982-1991: A beginner's guide

Written by Myke Dodge Weiskopf

Bent By Nature is back with a ton of classic live performances from the '80s and '90s. Graphic by Evan Solano.

Today, KCRW opens the floodgates on the archives of Deirdre O’Donoghue, whose show “SNAP” (1982-1991) was a lodestar for what she called “new, unusual, imaginative, and inventive music.” A year after Bent By Nature, our acclaimed podcast series about Deirdre, we’re launching two new initiatives that will spin the wheels of anyone with a fondness for underground and left-of-center music from the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

In addition to Deirdre’s unfailingly original and fresh DJing, “SNAP” was perhaps most famous for its legendary line-up of pioneering live in-studio performances. Deirdre had a golden ear for scouting artists at the dawn of their careers (Suzanne Vega, Sarah McLachlan) as well as attracting those already in the flush of their success (Tom Waits, R.E.M.). She hosted acts who were new to American shores (The Mighty Lemon Drops, Shelleyan Orphan) and those who were bursting out of the local LA scene (Concrete Blonde, Downy Mildew).

Inferior-sounding cassettes of these shows have circulated among fans and acolytes for decades. But thanks to the painstaking work of Bob Carlson and myself, KCRW has now brought a healthy cross-section of those shows back in full Technicolor, remastered directly from the original reel-to-reel tapes. Starting today, you can dive into the Bent By Nature Live Performance Archive and enjoy dozens of these sessions in their entirety. You can also dive into Bent24, our new 24-hour, on-demand streaming channel featuring a shuffling playlist of SNAP episodes (1982-1991), restored from Deirdre's original board tapes.

With such an overwhelming amount of material, though, it would be hard for the casual listener to know where to start. So here are ten essential listens that will help you grasp the breadth, significance, and sheer listening pleasure of what’s on offer. It’s a binge you won’t want to miss.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (March 3, 1989)

WHAT: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds joined Deirdre in-studio for a loose-limbed acoustic set following the release of “Tender Prey.” The set includes two bona fide Cave classics (“The Mercy Seat” and “The Carny”) and an appealingly ragged selection of covers.

WHY: One of the most widely-circulated shows in the SNAP archive, the show finds Cave and his gang in an irreverent mood rarely (if ever) captured in their official discography. The show demonstrates Deirdre’s ample gift for bringing down the guard of even the most “serious” artists.

Suzanne Vega - 1985-04-10 - TAPE 1 OF 1 REEL.jpg

Suzanne Vega (April 10, 1985)

WHAT: Suzanne Vega visited SNAP in April 1985 for her second-ever live radio appearance. Ahead of her now-classic self-titled debut album, Vega offers perfectly rendered takes of songs from that record, as well as an early appearance of one of her most iconic numbers.

WHY: For one thing, it’s an essential and long-unheard document of Vega at a crucial moment in her early career. But more importantly, it demonstrates why she was such a compelling presence to begin with. Shorn of their dated production, her early songs hover in a delicious liminal space, carried only by her voice and acoustic guitar. The very definition of atmospheric.

Concrete Blonde (April 23, 1987)

WHAT: LA’s Concrete Blonde were fresh off an ill-fated tour with Cyndi Lauper when they careened into SNAP in April 1987. They serve up a characteristically paint-peeling performance punctuated by grade-A banter between Deirdre and frontwoman Johnette Napolitano.

WHY: Like Suzanne Vega, Concrete Blonde were ill-served by the somewhat mannered presentation of their early work. This SNAP performance cuts the brakes altogether, with a blown-out sound that perfectly suits their Sunset Strip rock’n’roll. And seriously, the banter is not to be missed. One of the funniest SNAP sessions, and one that most clearly reflects a certain time and place in LA rock.

Harry Dean Stanton (June 24, 1987)

WHAT: Harry Dean Stanton was already three decades into his career as an actor’s actor when he began touring regularly as a song interpreter with a small acoustic trio. Joined by top-shelf sidemen Steven Soles and Kenny Edwards, Stanton dropped into Deirdre’s studio on June 24, 1987, to share a commanding set of covers in both Spanish and English.

WHY: Honestly, it’s worth it just to spend some quality time in Harry Dean Stanton’s presence. Although he occasionally got to flex his musical chops on celluloid (most notably in “Paris, Texas” and “Twin Peaks: The Return”), this session is a rare opportunity to treasure his sweet, earthy voice at length. A poignant reminder of how much poorer our world is without him.

Aaron Neville (October 15, 1990)

WHAT: In the wake of Aaron Neville’s surprise return to the pop charts with Linda Ronstadt, the soul legend graced the SNAP studio in 1990 with a transcendent solo set for voice and piano.

WHY: You may be forgiven for raising your eyebrows at Aaron Neville’s appearance here. Already a legend for his time in the Neville Brothers, and a solo artist since 1960, he was closer to a household name than anyone in the SNAP universe. But Deirdre prized feeling above all else in music, and in that league, Neville is undeniable. His performance of “Everything Will Be Alright” may be the most heart-stopping moment in the entire archive.

Shelleyan Orphan (September 7, 1989)

WHAT: Shelleyan Orphan brought their delirious chamber-pop to SNAP in September 1989. Nominally a duo of Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle, the group expanded to a sextet for their opening slot on The Cure’s “Prayer Tour.” On this rare US radio date, they perform a lovely set of selections from their “Century Flower” album.

WHY: If Aaron Neville represents a certain pinnacle of creative and commercial success,  Shelleyan Orphan’s Caroline Crawley is one of the great should’ve-beens. Best known for her guest turns with 4AD supergroup This Mortal Coil, her work as one-half of Shelleyan Orphan was the real deal. Unfailingly English, vocally eccentric, and drenched with raw feeling, their music isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, it’s really for you. We miss you, Caroline.

The Church (March 24, 1988)

WHAT: The Church visited SNAP in March 1988 for an all-acoustic set focused on material from their future US breakthrough, “Starfish.” Along with gorgeous renditions of now-classic songs, the band are in great humor, sparring verbally with Deirdre and improvising extensively.

WHY: The Church were veritable gods in the church of SNAP. A fixture of her playlists from early on, the rest of America joined in around the time of this session, thanks to the stratospheric success of “Under the Milky Way.” But Deirdre’s pure-hearted fandom brings the band down to Earth for an endearing chat which positively bursts with goodwill. The performances are loose-limbed and cozy as a kitchen table. A show in which everyone involved is at their best.

Dwight Yoakam and the Babylonian Cowboys (July 30, 1986)

WHAT: Among the more uproarious of SNAP sessions, Dwight Yoakam brought his merry band of Babylonian Cowboys to SNAP in July 1986. In addition to playing a full set of rip-roaring country and bluegrass, Yoakam and his band engage Deirdre in a stream of relentless banter and convivial shit-talking. One for the books.

WHY: If the Church’s performance takes place around the kitchen table, Dwight Yoakam and his band flip it upside down and dance on it. As befits Yoakam’s early days on the so-called “cowpunk” scene, his SNAP set crackles with electricity. Although he would soon find his own footing in the world of  mainstream country, this session clearly shows where his roots are. Hootenanny!

Camper Van Beethoven (August 10, 1987)

WHAT: Camper Van Beethoven made their “SNAP” debut in support of 1987’s “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.” The wisecracking ensemble rambles through selections old and new in a semi-acoustic session rife with cheerful chaos.

WHY: “Rootsy” is a word/accusation one might toss at Camper Van Beethoven, based on this rustic-sounding session. But you’d have to work pretty hard at misconstruing their intentions with meta song titles like “Ambiguity Song” and “Sad Lover’s Waltz.” There isn’t a drop of sacredness in the Campers’ approach – and if the frequently gorgeous music doesn’t let you in on the joke, their cheerfully chaotic banter is nothing but.

Glass Eye (February 21, 1990)

WHAT: Glass Eye represented the very best of what Austin, TX had to offer, which at the time also included “SNAP!” staples like the Reivers, the Wild Seeds, and Poi Dog Pondering. And whenever Glass Eye came to LA, Deirdre welcomed them with open arms and a sincere appreciation of their own bent nature. Their third session from February 1990 captures the band at its zenith: a tightly-coiled blast of  nervous energy, delivering their best performance yet.

WHY: Glass Eye’s sardonic repartée and maximally quirky music may share a certain irreverence with Camper Van Beethoven. But Glass Eye has a clear advantage in Kathy McCarty, whose nervy, strident singing is the band’s secret weapon. And years of consistent touring and songwriting have brought the band a heft that puts them in the upper echelons of art-rock.