Joan Osborne was clicking on all cylinders Friday night at the cozy Greenwich Odeum as she waltzed through a set Bob Dylan covers in a special show. Of course, Osborne made her name as a cereal box philosopher asking the question “What if God was ‘One of Us’,” the Eric Bazilian penned chart topper from 1994. She’s avoided the spotlight in recent years, devoting her energies to collaborations and covers.
She sang with The Dead in the early 2000’s and later toured with artists as diverse as The Dixie Chicks, Mavis Staples, and Cheap Trick. Recently, she embarked on a challenging project – the “Songs of Bob Dylan,” and is releasing a new album of Dylan covers in September.
Friday night’s show demonstrated her interpretive talent as she led her crack band of Kevin Bents and Jim Boggia through several Dylan classics and a few lesser known tunes. Although all authored by the Bard, many tunes had been previously covered by other artists – Osborne acknowledged that some of the songs were actually “covers of covers,” some performed close to the original, other delightfully re-imagined.
The Dylan Songbook
She opened with a funky boogie-woogie version of “The Mighty Quinn,” a tune made famous by Manfred Mann (and a “Top 10” hit in 1968!). The joyful line “When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy,” made for a strong show opener.
Next up was “High Water,” from Dylan’s brilliant 2001 album Love and Theft. Based on bluesman Charley Patton’s original, the intensity builds slowly in the song, much like the floodwaters that rolled over the Mississippi Delta in the infamous 1927 flood. Osborne then offered a stunning version of “Spanish Harlem Incident,” along the lines of the late great stomp guitarist Chris Whitley, who she credited for inspiration.
A couple of Dylan’s more well-known tunes followed, first “Just Like a Woman,” which Osborne announced was a show bonus, not to be included on the forthcoming album. The sing-a-long “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” (“Everybody must get stoned”) was next. She remarked that it was Dylan’s highest charting single, likely due to its chorus that always elicits smiles all around. Her approach was a vampy slow burn, a romp featuring Bents tickling the keyboards.
Too Many Highlights
Behind the driving guitar of Jim Boggia, “Masters of War,” was another show highlight. The song maintains its zeal more than 50 years since it was originally recorded, with the singer noting “it’s an intense song for intense times.” These are indeed some of Dylan’s best lyrics:
“Come you masters of war/You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes/You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know/I can see through your masks.”
“Buckets of Rain” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, “a gentle love song” was beautifully done, and then Osborne sang the popular “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” with its memorable sing-a-long chorus: “Whoo-ee, ride me high/Tomorrow’s the day/My bride’s gonna come/Oh, oh, are we gonna fly/Down in the easy chair.”
“Tangled Up in Blue,” also from Blood on the Tracks, rolled pleasantly along much like Dylan’s original version, this time behind the melodic keyboard of Kevin Bents. It’s a true rock and roll classic and a personal favorite – Joan can do no wrong! The main set finale was the ballad “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” another frequently covered favorite. The song feels more immediate in recent years as we continue to lose more artists of Dylan’s generation.
As she emerged for her encore, a fan shouted “play one of your own,” just as the opening chords of the brilliant “St. Teresa” were heard. It’s her finest original song in this reviewer’s mind, a story of desperation and sorrow. She followed with a jazzed-up version of “Gotta’ Serve Somebody” – “it might be the Devil, it might be the Lord” – one in a series of spiritually tinged songs both she and Dylan sing.
Osborne’s demeanor was warm and genuine all night, and she showed a lot of love for Dylan, his legacy, and her audience. Needless to say, she’s got a major vocal advantage over the Bard, not to mention a stage presence head and shoulders above what Dylan offers.
The only (minor) criticism of the evening was the lack of Osborne originals. No doubt this was fantastic show, however one or two of her own songs could be added to round out the performance. But that might mean sacrificing one of the Dylan covers – not an option!