When singer Eva Cassidy died of melanoma in November 1996, at age 33, she was barely known outside her home base of Washington, D.C. Those fortunate enough to have witnessed her in concert marveled at her interpretive skills, her ability to take seemingly any song from any style or period and customize it. Cassidy seemingly had what it took to reach mainstream success without compromising, but she never had the chance. Live at Blues Alley, recorded at the popular D.C. nightclub early in 1996, became the only solo album released during her lifetime.
It found a sizable audience posthumously, naturally spurring speculation as to where Cassidy might have ventured had she lived to enjoy its success. It has reportedly sold millions of copies since her death, and has been reissued before, notably in an expanded 20th-anniversary edition that more than doubled the number of tracks. This new package, however, reverts to the original 13-track program, which remains more than enough to get a taste of Cassidy’s gifts.
Working with a basic quintet and accompanying herself on guitars, Cassidy opens with the most traditional of standards, Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” The arrangement is not unusual, but Cassidy takes quick control, bending and swooping effortlessly. It’s not until a couple of tunes later, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” that the full elasticity of her voice—she borrows more from Aretha Franklin’s rendition than Simon & Garfunkel’s—comes into focus. From there, whether she digs into “Blue Skies,” Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” or the Curtis Mayfield soul anthem “People Get Ready,” she’s got listeners in her grip. How sad that she never got to bask in the adoration that came to mark her key work.