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In November 2015, which marks twenty years since the passing of one of the world’s greatest singers, Blix Street Records released the live double album, Nightbird by Eva Cassidy, recorded at Washington DC’s Blues Alley jazz club.
By Helen Heath
Named after one of its iconic tracks, the album captures the 3rd January 1996 concert in full, just ten months before Eva passed away from cancer.
The only album to be released (non-commercially) during Eva’s lifetime, Live at Blues Alley was nearly lost to a small group of fans if a compromise hadn’t been made between Eva and her sound engineer, Chris Biondo. Eva would allow her ‘mediocre’ vocal performance to be recorded if Biondo would include her studio version of ‘Oh, Had I a Golden Thread’.
Most of the album has been heard before; it was released as the first Eva Cassidy collection, Live At Blues Alley, in 1996, containing thirteen tracks. This collection – thirty-three songs plus a bonus DVD – is worth it for the eight never-heard-before tracks, as well as the opportunity to hear a live concert in its entirety.
Accompanying the original material are eight covers, ‘Route 66’, by Chuck Berry, Paul Simon’s ‘Late In The Evening’, Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, ‘You’re Welcome to the Club’ by Lee “Shot” Williams and Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’, as well as Eva’s version of Little Junior Parker’s soul classic, ‘Next Time You See Me’, ‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me’ – which she sings with just as much pizzazz as the great Etta James – and her take on the lesser-known Aretha Franklin song ‘Baby I Love You’. Plus, re-workings of ‘Ain’t Doin Too Bad’, ‘Chain of Fools’, ‘Fever’, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, ‘Waly Waly’ and ‘Nightbird.’
Her ability to transition effortlessly from introspective folk/pop to gutsy, passionate soul is unsurpassed – on this album more than any other collection, due to its live nature and the ample variety of its track styles. The songs are listed in the order that they were performed and beginning with Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’ we are eased, gradually, into Eva’s astounding musical capabilities.
It is her take on pop classics – such as ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Time After Time’, as well as her soulful interpretations of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and ‘You’ve Changed’ – that really strike a chord.
Eva’s version of ‘Nightbird’ – the studio version can be found on the 1997 release Eva By Heart – moved the song’s writer, Doug MacLeod, to such a degree that he has ceased performing it since hearing her interpretation.
‘When people ask me to do Nightbird, I tell them that if they want to hear THE version, [Eva] is the one to listen to’, said MacLeod.
Other highlights include her soulful version of The Boxtops’ ‘The Letter’, and her haunting performance of Buffy-Sainte Marie’s ‘Tall Trees in Georgia’, not forgetting her rendition of ‘What a Wonderful World’ and the song and that brought her worldwide acclaim, ‘Over the Rainbow’.
After seven solo albums – plus a duet album with Chuck Brown – Eva still manages to surpass expectation with every new release and it seems there can’t be much, if anything, left in the unreleased Cassidy catalogue, but this wonderful nightingale has left us with a legacy that outshines others’ musical careers.
From soul to gospel, pop to folk, it seems every corner of Eva’s talent is captured within this collection and it is perhaps the best showcase of her versatility as a performer.
Nightbird is an astonishing album, one that even the highly self-critical Eva, surely, would have been proud of.
Helen Heath is an MA Journalism student at Manchester Met. Besides writing she has a passion for music, singing and writing songs. Twitter @HelenHeath5.