It's a story I've told before.
It was the night of October 9th, some eleven years ago. Mid-way into her set, Eleanor McEvoy did what I was hoping she'd do...sing "Last Seen October 9th."
By way of preface, expecting her song title for an answer, she asked the audience, "Anyone know what day this is?"
From my ringside seat, I answered, "Yes...John Lennon's birthday."
"Is it? Really. I didn't know that..."
Today, the connection between this date and Lennon may be in the news. Today October 9, 2015, John Lennon would have celebrated his 75th birthday.
Eleanor won't be playing the song tonight. Not in public, anyway. She told me that she only plays the song on stage if it actually IS October 9th. Today, Eleanor is somewhere between Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where she performed last night) and Somerville, Massachusetts (where she'll perform Saturday night).
The song is about a person gone missing, not someone assassinated, but the effect is the same. The song, in its quiet, sober, somber simplicity, says a lot about life's fragility and the emptiness that goes with loss. After the show, I mentioned to Eleanor that home-made "last seen" signs, xeroxed with a snapshot of the missing loved one, were vivid on bus shelters and lamp posts and in store windows after 9/11, and stayed up until the rains and wind mottled and bent them, and the faces and names on them were faded and streaked. It was impossible to hear her song that night without thinking about all the "gone missing" people, from the thousands on 9/11 to John Lennon and that night of December 8th 1980 that remains one of the most scarring moments in my psyche.
One of the nice things about having a real CD instead of a blip in your iPod, is you have the artist's complete vision, including the booklet and lyrics. You also have something that can be autographed. My copy of her album is reproduced here, amended a bit in tribute to John.
"Last Seen October 9th" appears on "Yola," Eleanor's first album after going indie. The new one's called "Stuff," since it's a collection of singles, and obscure tracks that fans have sometimes found hard to find. Of course she was selling this at the show I attended recently, and I bought a copy. She told the crowd that she wouldn't have titled the album "Stuff" if she'd known it was such a popular slang word for drugs!
I'll always go to see Eleanor McEvoy in concert. She is simply one of the most ebullient, touching and talented artists around. She loves her audiences and they love her. From her biggest hits ("Only A Woman's Heart" and "Sophie") you might get the idea she's one of those "dull and sullen" types, but in live performance she actually apologizes when she covers one of the sadder tunes. Her life is a lot happier now, and she makes audience joyful every time she performs.
Her show is a dazzling display of musicianship (she was classically trained and between 1988-1992 was part of a symphony orchestra in Ireland). She moves from piano to guitar to violin with both virtuosity and an almost child-like enthusiasm, and even performs a cappela while slapping her guitar for rhythm or rattling two boxes of matches.
All that, plus a repertoire of songs that range from haunting love ballads to lusty blues to unique covers make for an evening that flies by. One night you might get a surprise version of Bob Dylan ("Just Like a Woman" or "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight") or anything from a rousing "Eve of Destruction" to Joni Mitchell's wickedly amusing Afro-samba "Carey." On her CDs she's offered a very surprising and intimate take on Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" and a baroque "God Only Knows," which typically highlights her classically trained piano skills. Her piano, violin or guitar accompaniment always has layers, textures and nuances that richly enhance the melodies.
Eleanor also has a kind of Carol Burnett-like (or for younger readers, Ellen Degeneres-like) talent for ad-libs, anecdotes, and breaking down the wall between stage and seats. You almost feel like you're in her living room, as she prefaces songs with funny stories or suddenly kicks off her shoes so she can better hit the pedals on the keyboard.
You might ask, "Well, why haven't I heard of her?" In her native Ireland, where the best selling pop album in Irish history features "Only A Woman's Heart," she's very well known. She's also got a strong cult following all over the world, which is fairly similar to what Randy Newman has. Even "Short People" didn't widen Newman's basic core audience. Often one big hit is simply that; Loudon Wainwright III had one with his "Dead Skunk" novelty single but isn't a big CD seller and tours comfortable smaller venues. Warren Zevon (who had a novelty hit with "Werewolves of London") needed cover versions by Ronstadt and others to bring real royalties in. He too played smaller venues and there were sometimes years between label deals. Like Randy, Loudon and Warren, Eleanor is perhaps so distinct and intelligent, she connects best when playing in front of loving, attentive, intimate audiences.
Long ago, Eleanor chose to leave Columbia Records and be an indie artist. Perhaps part of being "non-commercial" is that she doesn't model clothing ala Stevie Nicks, and doesn't swirl around in something from the Witch's Taffeta Collection. She's down to earth. She drives around in a hearse, not because she's eccentric or death-obsessed (which you could easily think from so many of her earlier songs) but because a hearse can fit all her musical equipment.
Her voice isn't that commercial. The beautiful Irish accent is unique, and the tone she has is sort of "French Horn." It's a beautiful instrument, but it's not like a trumpet or sax, so a McEvoy album tends to stay in the same groove whether the song is slow or fast. She's not going to suddenly belt out a dramatic number like Dame Shirley Bassey. The closest she gets to a bluesy lady like Judy Henske is having the same lovably eccentric hairstyle. And so, (to borrow a Fleetwood Mac reference) she goes her own way, creates indie CDs of beautiful sonic quality, and is perfectly happy doing so. Her live shows are a celebration, and often at venues that allow the customers to enjoy a beer or two. Or three.
I just wish whoever introduces her makes sure to get her name right. At the last gig I saw, someone lumbered out, read credits off a card, and welcomed to the sage "Eleanor Mick-avoy." The last name's pronounced Mack-evoy.
Apologies for offering one of her more stark numbers, but it IS October 9th.
OCTOBER 9th Listen on line, no pop-ups, porn ads or wait time.