Monday 30 March 2015

Eva Cassidy

            On very rare occasions you hear a voice that stops you dead in your tracks. For some it’s the lungpower of a diva or the technique of an opera singer that impresses, but for me it’s all to do with the performer speaking directly to me.

            I had received a very special request to play Danny Boy on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show; in an effort to find a less than hackneyed interpretation I stumbled upon Eva Cassidy’s version.

            Like many musicians I was familiar with the Eva story but, oddly enough, had never heard her sing. Within seconds I was captivated, as was the Celtic Crush audience for I received many emails wishing to know more about the singer.

            Fearing a fluke I downloaded her version of Autumn Leaves, one of my favorite standards. Again I was struck by her performance. It wasn’t just the command in her voice or the all-pervading sense of loss she evoked; no, it was as if she was singing to me alone and reopening matters that I’d long since set aside.

            Eva Marie Cassidy was born in 1963 to an Irish father and German mother in Washington, DC. From an early age she showed talent as a singer and musician, and by her teens she was already performing professionally in a number of bands.

            Although she suffered from shyness she stretched herself from the start, experimenting with various kinds of music from Folk through Jazz to Go-Go - DC’s own R&B dance music. Perhaps, this love of diversity was the reason she found little but local success – she was hard to categorize, although everyone who heard Eva live appears to have been mesmerized by her voice and performance.

            She was hard on herself too – harping on flaws, real and imagined, where others heard only perfection. Take a listen to her version of Sting’s Fields of Gold. I’ve always felt it is one of his best songs but Eva takes this delicate slice of memory to a different plane by fusing Sting’s sense of melancholia with an almost existential sense of loss. And yet that loss is cool and austere – there’s not even a trace of self-pity in her rendition.

            Perhaps she knew whereof she spoke, for Eva died from Melanoma in 1996, at the age of 33. Her family, friends and many admirers on the DC scene were stunned. It seemed only a matter of time until the outside world would discover her almost feral talent. Her circle continued to listen to a live recording she made at Georgetown’s Blues Alley – ever the perfectionist Eva felt her performance on that night suffered because of the effects of a cold.

            And there the matter would have rested except that her version of Fields of Gold along with a standout rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow were played by Irish DJ, Terry Wogan, on BBC Radio four years after her passing.

            The audience reaction was electric. Who was this singer, where had she come from, and how come no one knew of her? An enterprising producer from BBC’s Top of the Pops procured a live video of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Within months, Songbird, a compilation CD was top of the English charts and Eva has since gone on to sell over 10 million albums worldwide, with only a small percentage racked up in the US.

            You have to wonder why? Is radio so fragmented, commercialized, and market driven that most Americans just haven’t heard Eva? Or do those who have experienced her perfection prefer to keep their secret under wraps?

            It’s hard to fathom. But I do know that practically any song I play by her on Celtic Crush is a revelation to the nationwide and Canadian audiences.  She’s had a similar effect on me; for when I listen to Eva I’m reminded that I haven’t heard it all, haven’t become jaded, that all I need is a voice that speaks to directly to me, a voice that can cut through the everyday chatter of life, and I’m stopped dead in my tracks once again.  Thanks, Eva.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

God Bless The Sisterhood of the Stick

            Let me speak of that noblest of professions – the bartender. Now one could write tomes on the gentlemen keepers of the sacred stick – the exploits of Steve Duggan and Malachy McCourt spring to mind, but when it comes to tough love, lady bartenders leave them in the dust!

            I will refrain from mentioning any member of the Irish-American community, since too many know where the bodies are buried; instead I will dwell on the chutzpah and heroics of a Pole, a Finn, and an African-American, three ladies who took no nonsense from their clientele.

            The Polish woman ran a saloon on the corner of First and First, now owned by that infamous Dubliner, Terry Dunne. Known simply as Ma’am, she was on the wintry side of 70; yet she had your measure taken in the time it took you to shuffle from the door to the bare-bones bar. Nor did she offer a word of greeting - or gratitude - as you forked over your three bucks for a Heineken.

            She employed an alcoholic Polish accordionist who played Chopin with much feeling. She demanded silence for these performances and all banter halted as he labored over his melancholic sonatas.

            One night Milan, a fearsome Ukrainian of quicksilver temperament, expressed his homophobic opinion of Chopin and Poles in general.

            Without a flicker of emotion Ma’am leveled him with a baseball bat. Blood spurted from Milan’s bald pate while we drinkers scattered to the four walls. Whereupon Ma’am called a round on the house and nodded her approval as the accordionist abandoned his beloved Chopin for a wild Gypsy Mazurka.

            The Finnish lady had to be close to 90. At least I assume that was her nationality for she presided over The Finland Bar on 86th Street. I never saw her commit any act of violence, although her Louisville slugger nestled snugly next to the antediluvian cash register.

            She was lively, opinionated, and preferred that gentlemen greet her with one word - “Wodka!” One could wave a hundred-dollar bill while soliciting a Budweiser, and it would get you nowhere. No, “wodka” ruled, and she poured shots so liberal men were known to shake hands with themselves after a couple. Women, as a rule, did not frequent this saloon.

            A big silent hulking fellow sat in the corner; he was variously described as her son, or lover. One night an inebriated companion of mine ventured to suggest that he might be both. A frigid silence descended upon the room. The Finnish lady glared at us with such cold disdain that we promptly downed our “wodkas” and skipped to the door - some steps ahead of the big hulking fellow. 

I was furious at my companion, for good bars are hard to come by and liberal shots even rarer, but perhaps it’s just as well for my liver is pickled enough as it is.

            There are some who would say that Maria, the bartender at the Kiwi on East 9th Street, was not even a woman, but no one ever suggested that this tall, willowy transvestite was not a lady. She could converse on any subject, social, political or philosophical with clarity, erudition and grace. She was also quite an impressive sight for she favored six inch heels and towered above all and sundry.

            One evening a Hells Angel of much girth and little discretion expressed the view that he would prefer to be served by a “real woman.” In one fell swoop, Maria reached down and came up swinging with a spike heel. No blood spurted as she struck the Angel right between the eyes; nonetheless, this hirsute gentleman burst into tears claiming that his mother had, just that very morning, threatened to throw him out of house and home if he got in another fight.

            Ah yes, those were the days when men were men, and women occasionally were too. It’s probably safe to say, they don’t make lady bartenders like they used to.

Still, let us raise a glass to the sisterhood of the stick – when the world has turned its back on you, they’ll still slip you a drink and a knowing wink – just remember to behave yourself in their sacred presence.