Playing AvonLIVE! on Wednesday, August 14th, 2019. A free performance for the whole family to enjoy and remember!
The New York Times has called Joan Osborne “a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense singer,” winds her supple, soulful voice around Dylan’s poetic, evocative lyrics, etching gleaming new facets in them along the way.
“I try not to do a straight-up imitation of what someone else has done,” Osborne says. “Like if you’re going to sing an Otis Redding song, you’re never going to out-Otis him so you shouldn’t even try. So I always try to find some unique way into the song, and also to pick songs where the intersection between the song and my voice hits some kind of sweet spot. It was a joy being able to sing these brilliant lyrics. It’s like an actor being given a great part. You are just so excited to say these lines because they’re so powerful that it lifts you up above yourself.” Her album, Songs of Bob Dylan, spans Dylan’s beloved standards from the ’60s and ’70s to some of Osborne’s favorites from his later albums, including “Dark Eyes” (from 1985’s Empire Burlesque) and “Ring Them Bells” (from 1989’s Oh Mercy). “His versions are legendary and I’m not trying to improve on them,” Osborne says. “I’m just trying to sing beautiful songs and let people hear them. It’s about trying to give a different shade of meaning to something that’s already great. I happen to think Dylan is a great singer, but I will never, in a million years, sound like him, which almost made it easier.”
Unconstrained by any notion of trying to imitate or surpass Dylan, Osborne felt free to play with the songs’ arrangements, a process that was also enabled by the virtuosity and versatility of Osborne’s collaborators, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli (Patti Smith, The Fab Faux) and keyboardist Keith Cotton (Idina Menzel, Chris Cornell), who performed with her at Café Carlyle, and with whom she co-produced the album. “They bring this wealth of skills to the table,” she says. “Any crazy idea we came up with, they could do. So it was wonderful to have that level of musicianship at my fingertips.” Half the songs were recorded with the trio and the other half feature a full band.
The Kentucky native famously got her start performing her own songs in New York City’s downtown rock clubs, around the time that she began to rediscover Dylan’s work with Oh Mercy. “When you’re playing in the nightclub scene in Greenwich Village, his trail is everywhere, and not just because he played in the same places, but because people still perform his music every night. He’s part of the American musical education you get, whether you’re learning about him in some music conservatory or by playing in bars five nights a week. During those years I started to become more familiar with his music. And at the point when I was starting to arrange my own stuff and make my own recordings, hearing records like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ or ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ I thought, ‘Wow, that just has such an immediacy and freshness. How did he do that?’ It’s interesting to dig into it from that aspect, when music is your livelihood.”
In 2003, Osborne joined the surviving members of The Grateful Dead and had the chance to sing with Dylan, their co-headliner. “We performed ‘Tears of Rage,’ a song Dylan co-wrote with Richard Manuel,” Osborne says. “He came up to me after the show and said, ‘You know, I never liked that second verse, but I rewrote it. What do you think of these lyrics?’ And he read me the alternate lyrics that he’d apparently just written on this scrap of paper. I was so flabbergasted that Bob Dylan is standing there, we’re both sweaty from performing on this hot summer day in Indiana, and he’s asking me what I think of his lyric changes for this classic song. And all I could do was just say, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds good. I can hear that.’”
And what does Osborne think Dylan himself would think of her album? “Well, I would hope that he wouldn’t get pissed at me,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t think so. I mean, why write a song? He just released his third album of standards, so he must understand that a song desires to be sung, no matter who wrote it. It continues to live only if people sing it.”