Songbird – Emma Hatton sings Eva Cassidy at Live At Zedel, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
They had to put on an extra show for Wicked star Emma Hatton’s tribute to one of her great inspirations, the unforgettable Eva Cassidy, the American songstress who only became famous after her early death when Terry Wogan played her version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the radio.
It is easy to see why: she’s a girl after Cassidy’s heart who just loves to sing. And at times she sounds eerily like her idol with a purity of tone that matches her power to command attention.
Of course, she isn’t trying to imitate Cassidy who was one of those voices, like Streisand, Carpenter and Fitzgerald, that once heard is never forgotten.
This is more concert than cabaret, 17 wonderful songs interlaced with a well-researched commentary on a tragic life cut short at 33 – the age Hatton now is – by skin cancer.
There are the famous ones, Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’, Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Wonderful World’, the last song she sang in public when desperately ill. And naturally ‘Rainbow’, the Wizard of Oz classic forever associated with Judy Garland until Cassidy came along.
The song may have been done to death but Hatton’s haunting treatment still brings a tear to many an eye and had a full house on its feet to applaud. “Eva’s version is now the definitive one for many people, incredible when you think of who did it before,” says Hatton.
Like all the covers Cassidy recorded before her death in 1996, it was sung “with the heart, not the head” with that crystal-clear simplicity that so caught the public imagination afterwards.
Still better known in the UK than in her native USA thanks to the far-reaching power of Wogan in that 1998 broadcast – he played ‘Fields of Gold’ the following week – Cassidy’s Songbird album went on to sell like hot cakes. And she had three UK No. 1 singles.
Whether it was pop, blues, jazz, folk, blues, country, rock or gospel, Cassidy just wanted to sing good music.
She didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, she didn’t want to be famous. Bullied at school, she lacked confidence and didn’t like speaking in public, so there was little in the way of chat when she performed. She wasn’t interested in “that commercial crap”.
Outside Washington DC, where she sang and played guitar with a band, Cassidy and her extraordinary talent remained a local phenomenon far longer than it should have been.
But she had to do it her way. “Had she lived, she would have been a great producer,” said Hatton. “Eva knew exactly how she wanted things to sound and how to achieve that.”
That was why, six months before she died, she refused to have her self-funded Nightbird album released – the quality simply didn’t measure up. Only now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her death, has that full, remastered compilation been released.
From Nightbird, Hatton selects the upbeat ‘Blue Skies’, written by Irving Berlin in 1926, to kick off a terrific second half in which the Bill Withers classic ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and a bluesy ‘Stormy Monday’ are more showstoppers that show off Cassidy’s and her own versatility. Musical director Simon Beck (piano), John Gregson (guitar) and Rob Levy (bass) also added outstanding support.
This lovely lass from Gloucestershire, once a triple-jump champion set for a career in sport until taking a gap year from Loughborough and going off to develop her singing at the London School of Musical Theatre, does her subject proud and more than proud. A beautiful evening.