Simply Eva (Blix Street)
By Don Heckman
I can still remember the first time I heard Eva Cassidy. I had no expectations, since I’d never been aware of her before. It was 1998, and her first nationally released album Songbird had just arrived with a press release describing the circumstances of Cassidy’s short life and premature death of melanoma in 1996. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the album hold its own musically, or would it be the focus for yet another story about a young talent who died too soon?
But it didn’t take any more than the opening track, “Fields of Gold,” to announce, in bold face type, that I was hearing something remarkable, with or without the attendant story. And the rest of the album simply affirmed that response, over and over again.
In my review for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote “Listening to Cassidy’s beautifully textured vocals, recorded in relatively fundamental settings, one can only wonder what impact her work might have had if she had been accorded the opportunity to perform with the kind of production accorded, say, Cassandra Wilson or Diana Krall.”
Since then, having heard Songbird dozens of times, having heard the other Cassidy posthumous compilations, I would happily modify that sentence. Because the fact is the Cassidy didn’t need the “kind of production” accorded Wilson or Krall. Virtually every surviving Cassidy performance – audio or video, in a club or a studio, usually with minimal backing – identifies her as one of the great interpretive vocal artists, regardless of genre, regardless of accompaniment, of the last few decades.
“Simply Eva” proves it once again. The twelve performances, previously unreleased, reduce the settings to their purest essence – Cassidy’s voice and her guitar. And that’s all that was needed.
“Over the Rainbow” and “Autumn Leaves” (taken from the widely viewed video versions recorded in a Washington, D.C. club) are simply stunning – strikingly original, deeply emotional takes on tunes that could easily fall into the category of overdone standards. Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” along with Christine McVie’s “Songbird,” Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song” underscore the ease with which she could cast songs associated with specific singer/songwriters into her own musical and emotional perspectives.
And there’s a lot more happening in the remaining songs, as well: among them, an unusual rendering of Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” and a pair of Cassidy versions of traditional tunes, “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Wade in the Water.”
The album title, in superb understatement, tells us it’s “Simply Eva.” Simply, that is, a magnificent musical imagination combined with a stunning capacity to find the inner, beating heart of a song, and surround it with the richly empathic connection between her voice and her guitar. That’s Eva.