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Steve Gags' Virtuosic Vocal Improvisations Are No Joke

WBUR's panelists at The ARTery selected singer-songwriter Anjimile as their favorite Massachusetts entry to NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest this year. But, our panelists wanted the chance to highlight some other entries that stood out to them. Here's what panelist Amelia Mason — The ARTery's music critic and reporter — thought of Steve Gags' entry:


At first glance, Steve Gags’ submission to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest appears to be, well, a gag. The singer sits at a cluttered desk, head cocked in mock seriousness. “Hi, I’m Steve Gags and this is ‘What the Heck Is At My Desk Blues,’ ” he says, before launching into an energetic scat, thumping his hand against his chest to keep time. He grabs items from among the desktop jumble and holds them up to the camera: a paperclip, a paperweight, a pink highlighter pen. So far, so advertised.

But if it’s a joke, it’s a pretty spectacular one. Every time the singer reaches the end of the form, he modulates, jumping into a higher key — a devilish trick best attempted by only the most adept vocalists. His improvisations become more and more intricate, his interactions with the junk on his desk increasingly whimsical. It’s an incredibly cheesy bit, but he commits so fully — and so virtuosically  that it’s impossible not to be disarmed.

“It just comes out of me,” the singer said last month, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was performing in a production of “Newsies.” Professionally, the performer goes by his given name, Steve Gagliastro. But, he said, “most people in the world call me Gags.”

Gagliastro’s submission to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest was one of 158 entries from Massachusetts that were considered by The ARTery’s panelists to become WBUR’s favorite local entry to the national contest. (That honor went to Anjimile, who will perform at WERS’ Wicked Good Festival on Aug. 18.) Among many exciting entries, it’s safe to say there was really nothing else like Gagliastro’s.

Gagliastro — who, along with singing and acting also plays the trombone — says the video he submitted simply captured one of the many ditties he improvises every day. It helps keep him in shape.

“As long as my mouth can keep up with my brain, I can string together some decent licks,” Gagliastro says. “Every once in awhile you paint yourself into a corner and you try to get out of it.”

Gagliastro, 43, lives in Worcester with his wife, who also works in show business. Every year they work on the Hanover Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” she as choreographer, he as assistant music director. Gagliastro is a man of many hats: In addition to performing onstage, he plays in a band, appears in commercials and in recent years has found work as a character actor in TV in film, most notably the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Ted 2” and the Showtime series “Billions.”

“In the film and TV industry especially, it's very last-minute, you never know what they're going to throw at you, you never know when your next gig is going to come,” Gagliastro says. “You have to keep yourself busy creatively.”

That’s where “What the Heck Is At My Desk Blues” comes in. If the video seems like a throwaway bit, that’s because it is. The point isn’t to get noticed it’s to stay creative. As soon as Gagliastro releases something into the world, he leaves it behind. Then he turns around and makes something new.

Amelia Mason Twitter Music Reporter/Critic, The ARTery
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's Arts and Culture team. She covers everything from indie rock to avant-garde to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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