Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved
(Ronnie Scott’s, 15 November 2017, first of 2-night residency. EFG LJF 2017. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
Singer-songwriter Becca Stevens has a warm, engaging presence which drew the crowd on-side from the start as she announced that she’d invited some of her favourite musicians to join her and that the audience should approach the gig ‘like you’re in the living room with me!’ adding later ‘… and we’re just hanging out.’
She set the scene perfectly for a richly textured evening, two sets of songs, anecdotes and chats to the audience, dropping the formal barriers, joined by her long-time percussionist Jordan Perlson (‘best drummer on the planet!’), down-at-roots songsmith Oli Rockberger on keyboards, and co-opted, on bass, guitarist Alicyn Yaffee, like Stevens, Brooklyn-based, whose fretboard-work, recalling that of Emily Remler, Stevens has admired for years.
Although she can turn herself formidably to the jazz songbook, as on Chris Tordini’s Midnight Sun album (Newvelle), Stevens didn’t dip in to the jazz canon at all, showing just how flexible musicians and audiences can be – even at Ronnie’s! She started off singing solo and playing traditional 4-string ukelele (later she’d employ a 10-string model), setting out her stall with the title track of her new album, Regina, with a folk-tinged tale of loss, a void left by a relationship and more.
Stevens has a beautifully nuanced vocal style, a delicate yet strongly assured delivery rooted in an open, broad, range which is very much her own, with the mildest of echoes of one of her heroines, Joni Mitchell, that also carries through to her guitar work, and with whose Help Me she encored.
She covered tracks spanning her four albums and showcased songs by her guests. Canyon Dust had her ukelele shine with the poise of a dulcimer, Rockeberger and Perlson throwing in subtle taps and twists in support. I asked, which she’s also recorded with Snarky Puppy, introduced Yaffee, adding fluid, powerful bass foundations. Tillery was the opportunity to open the doors further, as she explained how crucial the poetry of Jane Tyson Clement had been to shaping the song after a spell of songwriter’s block, and whose poems she continues to set to her music.
Clements’ descendants were in the house – a son, daughter-in-law and great granddaughter – and she also would connect with Yaffees relatives, and Rockberger’s parents, making it not only a family atmosphere but a true family affair.
Rockberger’s Don’t Forget Me had an unforgetteble streak running through it. Riven with thoughtful melancholy, hints of Simon and Garfunkel, it cut through as a vocal duet, with the soulful, call-and-response repetition of the lyric leavened sweetly by a fleetingly bright piano lick. Yaffee’s My Word – ‘I fell in love with this song’, said Stevens – got its second ever airing with Stevens adding harmonies on its poignant pathway.
Stevens brought on cellist Laura Armstrong with Ella Hohnen Ford, ‘who’s become like a sister to me’, who took the lead vocal on the old Irish song Wild Mountain Thyme, in an arrangement flushed with atmospheric space, and then Troy Miller, producer of Regina and drummer with Laura Mvula, adding further pzazz, to duet on piano on the reflective Both Still Here which she said had taken a few years to complete with sketches stored on voice memos. The darker side of her lyrics, never that far from the surface, took centre stage on Ophelia, developed out of a fascination with Shakspeare – ‘His dreams, as back as ink …’
A greatly enjoyable evening – resolutely from the heart and to warm the heart.