I’ll never forget the moment I first saw the video of Eva Cassidy playing Over The Rainbow on one of her few surviving live concerts, Live From Blues Alley. To this day, if anyone asks me my opinion on the greatest live performance ever, that’s the one. It doesn’t get any more compelling.
Eva Cassidy’s guitar playing was spectacularly subtle, and her majestic, angelic vocal inch perfect. What was even more endearing was the genuine fear on her face, which failed to pervade her unshakable professionalism. The nuances are astonishing, and the impact of hearing her sing, for me, was penetrating. I mean, she raised the bar in my opinion.
The world was robbed of a beautiful singer when Eva died of cancer, aged just 33, in 1996. Like all great artists and performers, she left her mark on this planet with the beautiful songs collected on Songbird – the finest of her posthumous releases. It’s just a terrible shame that she’s not here to reap the rewards of her success. Of course, the capitalist, big-wig record company execs have milked her success with numerous mediocre compilations since. However, as The Guardian noted upon its release in 1998, Songbird is simply “indispensable.”
The album opens with Eva’s pure rendition of Sting’s Fields Of Gold; a heartfelt, sentimental interpretation that brings a distinctly feminine dimension to this stunning Sting composition. The record slides effortlessly into a bluesy take on Wade In The Water – a song beautifully arranged to compliment Cassidy’s celestial vocal, before gliding into an immaculately spacious rendition of Autumn Leaves, a 1945 jazz standard penned by Joseph Kosma that Cassidy’s voice slips inside like a hand into a glove. It’s painful to reach the end.
Eva’s performances on these delicate slow numbers are tearfully unique. I don’t think anybody I’ve ever heard sings them with the same feeling and conviction. Wayfaring Stranger is a moody blues, Time Is A Healer a lovely declaration of longing with killer harmonies in the chorus, I Know You By Heart an angelic ballad with captive, melancholy violin from Dan Cassidy, and Oh, Had I A Golden Thread a jazzy, organ led smoky blues bar vibe.
The title track, Songbird, is a brilliant cover of Christine McVie’s Fleetwood Mac hit. Eva’s incredible interpretation does so much justice to the original. I’m sure McVie would have been honoured. Interestingly enough, Mick Fleetwood, legendary drummer of Fleetwood Mac, loved Eva so much that he used to sit in on drums for her whenever she played his club in Virginia.
People Get Ready has been covered by a multitude of great artists – most notably Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin – though Cassidy’s version on this record stands up to them all. Curtis Mayfield’s timeless, faith-drenched song cries out for devotion, and Eva provides it – albeit to the song. The album closes with the incredible aforementioned Over The Rainbow, though there really are no words to describe it. You can check it out at the bottom of this review. I just urge you to sit back and listen. Lights off, candles on. Glass of wine. You know where I’m going.
I don’t usually warm to albums comprised of cover versions. Originality is the most appeasing thing to my musical ear. However, certain singers cannot be ignored. Eva was not a prolific songwriter, but her outstanding, powerful, emotive interpretations have breathed new life into some wonderful old songs.
Songbird really is an album that belongs in any serious music collection; an album to laugh to and to cry to in equal measure. A record that stands as a beautiful epitaph to a beautiful singer.
Top track trio:
Somewhere Over The Rainbow