I first heard the name Eva Cassidy on Illawarra ABC one cricketless afternoon driving home. She was introduced as “the late folk singer.” This did not make me turn off. As a result I heard the most exquisite rendition of Paul Anka’s ’Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.’ It is not a great song, about par for Paul Anka: sweet and melancholy; squeaky and sentimental.
What I heard had been passionately desqueaked. Gentle and persuasive, she sings it with the perfect combination of sweet youthful generosity and middle aged bitterness. Beautiful, I thought. There is not much on radio that is beautiful, so I filed the name and song. I slowly became aware of the thing surrounding Eva Cassidy. She has a powerful tragi-glamour because she wasn’t a star and she died of cancer in the late nineties. It is an interesting combination of genuine tragedy and fudged star quality (“virtually unknown” say the liner notes – aren’t we all.) This packaging of Cassidy is a kind of stardom, but not one that really helps. I can’t help but think that renown, being genuinely liked and admired for one’s personal and professional life are both more interesting and more practical than the capital-power of pop stardom, poison chalice and all that.
These two discs are pretty similar, lots of songs your Mum would know and lots of songs your Mum would like. Live at Blues Alley tells you what it is, a collection of live performances and Imagine is a mixed live and studio collection. Aside from a likeable minimalist approach to the instrumental backing on Imagine there is very little difference between the two. They’re both good in lots of ways; both have moments where the Eva Cassidy thing was understandable.
There are lots of times when the power of her voice is startlingly apparent but an equal number of times when it seems to produce something close to AM radio easy listening (especially ‘Imagine’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’) and worse (‘Take Me To The River,’ ‘What A Wonderful World.’) Part of this is the problem of being a singer, you’ve got to sing something and not all of it is going to work. Don’t get me wrong there’s much to marvel at on these discs, (‘People Get Ready,’ ‘Early Morning Rain,’ ‘Tall Trees in Georgia’) the joy of hearing ‘Danny Boy’ sung both well and with a sense of dignity is real and satisfying.
Sometimes a singer’s voice is distracting. I’ve listened to Eva Cassidy’s voice so much that it seems what I really want is to understand from everything it says is that a passionate creative artist behind it. Much of Imagine and Live at Blues Alley seems like a demonstration of prowess, but having heard the demonstration I want the real thing. These two discs are the world’s most beautiful juvenilia. Unquestionable, glorious brilliance but only hints of the possibility that something larger, of greater beauty, and more human’ could be just around the corner. But never will be.