Earlier in the year, singer-songwriter Joan Osborne launched a two-week engagement at an upscale, New York City club that was entirely devoted to Bob Dylan’s music. She received a rave review in the New York Times.
“Like Bonnie Raitt, a musician to whom she has often been compared, Ms. Osborne is a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense singer-songwriter,” the Times noted. “Because Ms. Osborne’s rock-blues voice is steadier than Mr. Dylan’s eccentric shape-shifting delivery, her show clarified his lyrics and brought out the strength of his blunt tunes without sweetening emotions that come out unedited.”
“The shows were tailored to the Cafe Carlyle, which is a New York institution,” Osborne explains. “I wanted to do something that gave a nod to the history of the room, so we came up with a unique twist and did nothing but Bob Dylan songs. It was like if you’re an actress doing Shakespeare, the material is so deep and multifaceted. We were so excited and we got a great reaction. We want to do it some more, and we might even put out a record of Bob Dylan covers.”
Some years back, Osborne actually recorded with Dylan, on a remake of his classic “Chimes of Freedom,” which was featured in NBC’s miniseries “The ’60s.”
“He’s such a mercurial person known to do things completely different from one moment to the next,” she says. “We recorded the song once and he wanted to do it in a completely different way, and then in another different way. For me it was about being as flexible as possible.
“We shared the same microphone, so I was right up in his face, watching him like a hawk to figure out where he was going and what his phrasing was going to be. I tried to free my mind and go wherever he was going. He was very nice and funny and very complimentary. I’ve sung with him couple of times when I was on tour with the Dead, and he was the co-headliner.”
Best known for her enduring hit song, “(What If God Was) One of Us,” from her triple-platinum-selling album, “Relish,” this versatile artist most recently released two critically acclaimed albums, the solo project “Love and Hate” and the band recording “Trigger Hippy.”
Her first album of original material since 2008, “Love and Hate” found Osborne exploring various facets of love, relayed with her wonderfully expressive, soulful vocals.
“At the beginning of the record, I was looking to find a particular sonic style,” she says. “We were listening to records that had lushness to them like Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks,’ or ‘Pink Moon’ by Nick Drake. In the process of writing with that in mind, I came up with the song ‘This is Where We Start,’ and it really touched a nerve about what the beginning of a relationship can be, or the moment when you realize you have fallen in love with someone and will be with them for the rest of your life. It was interesting to come up with other songs in the same vein.
“A lot of popular music is about romantic love, but the songs on the radio are either about telling someone you’re crazy about them, or you want to breakup. What I see and experience in my life is much more complicated. When you get to a certain age, you can’t just say goodbye to somebody because they made you mad. You have kids and houses and histories and commitments. So it’s a very interesting time to think about romantic love, and there are still powerful feelings, but they are mixed in with things like power struggles and spirituality, and it becomes a richer experience.”
Standout tracks include the funky “Keep it Underground” and the moody, smoldering “Kittens Got Claws,” which builds to a dramatic climax with Osborne crying out, “Will I ever love again.”
“It’s one of those songs that explores the darker side of romantic love,” she explains. “Sometimes you just get to the end of your rope, and you can’t take it anymore.”
A PopMatters review of “Love and Hate” praised: “Joan Osborne has one of those voices (along with Susanna Hoffs and Bonnie Raitt) that makes any song she interprets that much better.” She was equally lauded for her work with the rock band Trigger Hippy, which Rolling Stone proclaimed the “Best Supergroup” at the 2014 Americana Music Festival, “with Osborne’s Aretha-like singing and slinky stage moves at the fore.”
Melding Southern rock, R&B and country elements, Trigger Hippy was founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman.
“It’s been a blast,” says Osborne. “It’s a lot of fun to do a straight-up, meat-and-potatoes rock-and-roll band. We’ve written a whole bunch of new songs, and hopefully we’ll get back into the studio in the fall. I’m looking to have a new Trigger Hippy record at the beginning of next year.”
Comfortable singing a range of styles, Osborne started her career as a blues singer.
“It was the music I cut my teeth on as a singer and performer,” she recalls. “When I came to New York, I wasn’t planning on doing music. I studied filmmaking at New York University, but I fell into this scene of people making music. There were a lot of blues clubs open at that time and I would sing at open mic nights and meet other musicians, and eventually I put my own band together. Pretty soon I was spending all the money that I should have been spending on college text books on Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf records.”
In time, her prowess as a blues and soul singer would lead to her Grammy-nominated blues/R&B album “Bring It On Home” (covering greats like Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and Slim Harpo); a tour with gospel/funk legend Mavis Staples; and an invitation to appear in the acclaimed documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” about the legendary Funk Brothers who backed Motown’s stars. Her version of “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” was a show-stopping highlight in the film.
And she also toured with the Grateful Dead, and later on, Phil Lesh & Friends.
When Grateful Dead musicians Bob Weir, Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann decided to tour as the Dead in 2003, they invited Osborne to join them on vocals. She was warmly received by Deadheads, with one commenting online, “She’s the best singer they’ve ever had.”
“We happened to have the same booking agent,” she explains. “He had found out that the Dead were going out again on tour and he knew they were looking for additional musicians. He suggested me, and I don’t know if they knew too much about me, but they flew me to San Francisco and we did a show at The Warfield theater to see if it would work. It went really well. I have a background in blues and roots music, and their music comes from that same river.”
So was she a Deadhead?
“I became one having to learn hundreds of songs,” she says. “I became a real appreciator and fan of the songwriting. I actually recorded a version of ‘Brokedown Palace’ on the ‘Pretty Little Stranger’ album, which I still love to do in concert. It’s like a beautiful relic of gospel music. It’s such a gorgeous, classic song.”
The popular song most associated with her, “One of Us,” was later recorded by Prince on his “Emancipation” album.
“Around the time the song was a hit, he said some very complimentary things about me, and I received an invitation to one of his parties in New York. Of course I was a fan and very flattered that he did the song. Prince and Lenny Kravitz were sitting in a room, and I became this gushing idiot, but we had a nice little chat. Since he passed away, we’ve been doing ‘Kiss’ and a bluesy version of ‘Little Red Corvette.’ I tried to work up a version of ‘Nothing Compares to You,’ but I can’t get through it without crying.”
Osborne will make her Maui debut in the Castle Theater on July 28 as an acoustic duo with keyboardist Keith Cotton, who accompanied her in New York for the Dylan shows.
“We take songs and strip them down to their base essence,” she says. “It’s great because you’re able to use all these different subtleties in your voice that wouldn’t really translate in a full band setting. So it’s a kind of reimagining of the songs and distilling them down to their purest form. We’ve had such a great response from fans, and after shows people say it’s the most amazing thing. There’s something really special about the acoustic version.”
The Maui Jazz & Blues Festival returns to the Royal Lahaina Resort in Kaanapali on Sept. 10 with a stellar lineup. Among the musicians performing are legendary jazz fusion guitarist Larry Coryell, blues great Joe Louis Walker, Grammy-winning New Orleans’ trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and acclaimed saxophonist Javon Jackson.
Also on the bill, trumpeter Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, and saxophonist Rock Hendricks. Zydeco music stars on board include The Band Courtbouillon, featuring accordionists Wayne Toups, Steve Riley and Wilson Savoy.
* Tickets are $50 for general admission and $100 for VIP premium seating, and are available at www.mauijazzandbluesfestival.com.