Watch an Intimate and Stirring Performance by Becca Stevens, at the WBGO Yamaha Salon

Oct 17, 2019

As a singer, a songwriter and a player of stringed instruments, Becca Stevens has thrived in almost every conceivable setting.

If you haven’t seen the Becca Stevens Band, maybe you recently caught her in a supporting role, playing NPR Tiny Desk Concerts with Hall of Fame folksinger David Crosby or youngblood polymath Jacob Collier. Maybe you heard her in the past with Tillery, a collective trio. Maybe you heard her with pianist Billy Childs in 2016, singing Laura Nyro’s songs at the WBGO Yamaha Salon.

Just days before she performed her own songs at the WBGO Yamaha Salon, Stevens was in Cologne, Germany, working with the WDR Funkhausorchester, under the baton of acclaimed orchestrator Vince Mendoza. Her Yamaha Salon set took on a far more intimate scale: Stevens played the first half alone, and the second half joined only by guitarist Jan Esbra.

Her set list drew partly from Regina, a category-stretching album released in 2017, and partly from Wonderbloom, which will push those boundaries even farther when it’s released next spring on GroundUP Music. I served as host for the evening, speaking with Becca about her uncategorizable style, her training in jazz and traditional folk music, and the inspiration behind her clear-eyed and openhearted songs. (Stevens coproduced Wonderbloom with Nic Hard, who was in the audience; two tunes from the new album appear here in their broadcast premiere.)

She opened with two songs from Regina: its heraldic title track, followed by “Ophelia,” whose verses sprawl forward like the tendrils of a vine. Then came “Tillery,” inspired by the poetry of Jane Tyson Clement, and featured both on the album called Tillery and on Stevens’ own Perfect Animal.

When Esbra joined Stevens — bringing not only a second guitar but also a rare understanding of her technique, as she explained — they first finessed another Regina song, “Lean On.” Then came the two new songs: “Between You & Me,” a slow-motion romantic dreamscape, and “Heather’s Letters to Her Mother,” a breathtaking ballad, which initially sprang out of an exhortation from David Crosby. 

Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO

Recalling the tragic death of Heather Heyer at a protest in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017, Crosby charged Stevens with writing a song. As she recalls here, it took a while before she arrived at the premise for “Heather’s Letters,” with each stanza moving forward in time, toward (and beyond) that fateful day.

It’s a powerful song, no less for its evocative harmonic color than the understated emotion in its lyrics. Stevens, in giving voice to someone silenced by injustice, carefully calibrates the mood: in the end, it’s both heavyhearted and hopeful.

“We are nothing without love,” goes one line in the song, and Stevens eventually turned it into a singalong refrain. No microphones were trained on the audience, so you can’t hear it in the video — but the room filled with voices, bringing some additional weight to that meaningful “We.”

This WBGO Yamaha Salon, on Oct. 10, 2019, also featured pianist Dan Tepfer. A piece about that set — which included an encore with Stevens and Tepfer together — will publish next week. 

Audio by David Tallacksen

Video capture by Aaron Ross