Round XXII - My Continuing Adventures As A San Francisco Entertainment Journalist

May 2003

This month: A Tribute to the late Eva Cassidy

Back in October of 2000, I moved back home to San Francisco (okay, Daly City) to take care of my sick dad and help my mom and family. Since I’d left many, many years before to chase fame and fortune in LA, New York and Nashville, I really didn’t know anyone here and hadn’t stayed in close touch with many of my old friends. I felt like a stranger in a really strange land – the house I grew up in. And of course, I had yet to meet the illustrious publisher of this newsrag, and all of you, loyal readers…

So in between hospital visits and trips to the grocery store for my mom, I started hanging out in chat rooms online for company. I fancied the English ones, having visited the U.K. twice in ’99, and got a kick out of bantering back and forth with the Brits. One guy, a bloke named David, started instant messaging me, e-mailing pictures and trying to flirt. It was harmless stuff, and when I told him I was a singer/songwriter, he asked me if I’d ever heard of a singer named Eva Cassidy. He kept saying how “brilliant” she was and how I just absolutely had to listen to her. I dismissed it as idle flirting chitchat. David e-mailed me a few more times to ask me if I’d listened to Eva yet. I hadn’t, and he grew bored and eventually stopped contacting me.

One night I came home after my band’s rehearsal and turned on Nightline. It was a special program devoted to the memory of Eva Cassidy. I recognized the name and sat transfixed as I listened to this angelic, haunting voice coming out of my little TV set, while they told her touching, tragic story. My e-mail chum David was right.

Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy was a gifted singer from Washington D.C. who was virtually unknown outside of the small circles she played. She developed skin cancer and died in 1996 at the age of 33. Eva began playing guitar and singing with her father and siblings as a young child. Although painfully shy by nature, she came from a musical family where everyone played an instrument and sang, but Eva’s star shone the brightest, according to her father. She loved art, nature, worked in a tree nursery and lived a simple life. She couldn’t have cared less about money or fame.

Eva could sing anything: a standard like Autumn Leaves, a pop song like Sting’s Fields of Gold, a jazz tune like Take All Of Me and make it completely her own, as if it had never been recorded before she sang it. The combination of her complete control mixed with the utter effortlessness she delivered song after song was breathtaking, one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. As she sang Over the Rainbow, I began to weep. My dad had passed away just a couple months before and I think Eva touched that place in me that I hadn’t yet gone to for him…

I listened to more of her story. Local Washington D.C. icons (like Go-Go Godfather Chuck Brown) coaxed her out into the limelight and kept her there. A producer named Chris Biondo discovered her extraordinary talent and began recording her. She had some record company interest, but unfortunately, they were alienated by her insistence on remaining true to herself and her artistry, her refusal to be pigeon-holed into any one genre of music. She could have been Norah Jones today – but there was so much more depth and passion to Eva’s voice. In 1996, just as it looked as if she might possibly break through to achieve some success and notoriety, fate took a cruel turn. Eva was diagnosed with skin cancer. She still showed up at gigs, frail, walking with a cane, still intent on sharing her gift till the end. But by November of that year she was gone.

In 1998, through some guardian angels of Eva’s, her music somehow found it’s way into the hands of a radio DJ in England and he played it on his program. Suddenly, hundreds of calls came pouring in, begging for more. And the strangest, craziest miracle happened: Eva Cassidy got a record deal and became a huge, top-selling star in the UK after her death. She is still on the charts today. She would have been forty this year.

Separated at Birth? Steve Massam (l), British Radio Producer, and Captain Kangaroo (r), aka Bob Keeshan.  Now that Mr. Keeshan has passed away, I hear there is a slot open at PBS...hint hint.

Steve's Photo courtesy of Yorkshire Entertainment UK

A couple months ago, Valerie Jay, the English country singing beauty I reviewed in this column last year, asked me if I’d like to participate in a BBC radio tribute to Eva’s memory. It would be hosted by her friend Steve Massam, a veteran radio producer based in Yorkshire, England (whose credits include the live broadcast of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, featuring Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, George Martin and many others). He was looking for American artists who had been touched by Eva’s music. I e-mailed Steve and suddenly I was to be a part of this wonderful tribute honoring the legacy of someone who had affected me so deeply.

I began listening to Eva’s music again with fresh ears and it really opened my heart to fully realize she may be gone, but her music lives on and on. I have now listened to this amazing tribute, of which I am so honored and humbled to be a part of. Among the people interviewed in between Eva’s beautiful voice: Eva’s parents, her producer, her friends, British music personalities – and me. I don’t quite know why I was chosen, but I know I am so blessed that I was. Meanwhile, Steve asked me to send him some of my music and he liked it so much, he’s begun playing it on his radio show and has said listeners have been calling in, asking about me. All because of Eva Cassidy. Like a chain that connects us. I wish I could have met her. Thank you, Eva. See you somewhere over the rainbow…

Unsung Heroes 'n Zeroes

I've been lax of late in getting to the mass quantity of CDs that have been sent to me, and shows I've attended. Cramming everything into a monthly column can be quite daunting, loyal readers. The illustrious publisher of this little newsrag has done a superlative job in picking up my slack (and making me feel my Jewish guilt), but it's time to pull my "entertainment editor" weight, as it were (no cracks please)...

Butch Berry Band - Unlimited

If you like any of the following: a) stick-to-your-brain-cells–like-superglue songs with killer hooks, harmonies, etc., b) The Beatles c) Cheap Trick d) cute boys who kick ass e) all of the above: run, don’t walk and grab a copy of this SF Bay Area Butch and his Berry Band of music makers’ stuff. Now. I’m not mentioning a stand out track because every one is a smash hit. If you disagree, you need a hearing test, new taste buds, or you’re Butch’s ex-girlfriend.

The Tommy Womack Band - Washington D.C.

I gave Tommy's Circus Town a big thumbs up last year and declared him a winner in my Best of 2002 column for this section, so he's not gonna get much more from me, except a "Buy this cool-as-hell live CD now for the love of God!!" I said, now.

Kittens For Christian

This three song sampler from the full CD due out in the fall called Privilege Of Your Company features some unabashedly retro 80's post punk neo-new wave, ala The Cure. And the stories this transplanted trio could tell: lead singer/bass player Hiram Fleites was born in Cuba and came over on the boat of political refugees when he was 7 with his mom and dad who was a political activist against Castro and had been jailed for that! The guitarist Neil Young (I swear I'm not making this up) was born in Scotland. These LA immigrant boys are bummed out to the max, but they sure make "looking so good and feeling so bad" sound like a blast. Signed by Serj Tankina, leader of System Of A Down, these dark cats have a bright future.

Love Her Madly: New Women Artists Cover The Doors

Skipping Discs Records is an independent company out of Massachusetts, which specializes in tribute and cover compilations, with the emphasis on crossing musical genres. Love Her Madly features 19 female artists paying homage to the Lizard King and his boys and it’s a lot of fun. Some cuts work, others don’t, but who cares? It’s getting radio airplay across the country, so lots of Doors aficionados are lappin’ it up. Buy the ticket, enjoy the ride. Standout performances include Essra Mohawk’s Riders On The Storm and EDENautomatic’s Waiting For The Sun.

I'm still waiting for my Saturday Night Hay Fever (bluegrass artists covering disco - does that sound great, or what?) And I just submitted my interpretation of Ziggy Stardust for their upcoming Spiders From Mars - a female artist tribute to the White Duke himself, David Bowie. If I make it, you buy it!

Ashley MacIssac

Ashley MacIssac - Ashley MacIssac
Decca Records/Universal Music Classics

This self-titled CD from the Canadian virtuoso fiddler is what would happen if the singer from Crash Test Dummies, Bruce Springsteen, Sarah McLaughlin and God knows who else took turns fronting Lord of The Dance. Each track sounds different, and it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed having a sip. I heard he flashed the cameras with his kilt on Conan O'Brien, so I'll be in the front row when he comes to SF this month.

Jeffrey Gaines - Toward the Sun
Artemis Records

With his sandpaper-against-velvet voice, this guitar-toting soulful songwriter could sing the phone book and I’d be happy. I’m even happier when sings masterpieces like In This Lifetime and Life of the Living. Not all the cuts are as cool as those, but with that voice, I’ll cut the brother some slack. He’s got more to him than meets the ear, that one. You mark my words – and pay attention to his.

The Contes - Bleed Together
Thunderdog Recordings

Speaking of voices, I've been a fan of the brothers Conte's band-by-any-other-name-sounds-as-sweet, Crown Jewels, for years. And the voice in question is undeniably Steve's (although John is certainly no slouch in that department). The thing about these guys is the triple threat factor: Steve's soulful, every-color-in the crayon-box vocals, great musicianship (both brothers have toured extensively with name acts as guitar and bass players, respectively) and really great songs. I mean "why-the-hell-aren't-these-guys-household-names" songs. Each track is like a three-minute-movie, using your ears to twist and turn your heart inside out, or crack you up. TV and film seem to have gotten a clue, they've landed several cuts off their past CDs in shows like Smallville and Jag. There's not a weak link on this chain, but if I had a gun to my head, So Much For Love, Bleed Together and My Brilliant Star get my vote. I'm a sucker for this stuff.

Liz Pisco - Gravity

All you Natalie Merchant fans: there’s a new girl in town and she’s gonna give Nat a run for her money. Co-produced by Nashville transplant Michael Romanowski, this guitar-playing gal knows a thing or two about songwriting and it shows on tracks like Running and Suicide Girl. I’d like to hear what would happen if she really let loose, but I feel the same way about Natalie.


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