Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Joan Osborne


From Aspen Times

Any world that she's welcome to
Joan Osborne's twisting road

Joan Osborne's career has been a crazy quilt of styles, collaborations and projects.She has, in a sense, stood in for Jerry Garcia - as a member of the post-Grateful Dead band, the Dead - and Martha Reeves of Martha & the Vandellas - as a guest with the Motown band the Funk Brothers.The 42-year-old Osborne has been at the very top of the pop charts, with her 1995 album "Relish"; she has also put in years in the clubs of downtown Manhattan. She has delved as deeply into the structured songs of Motown as she has into the open-ended creations of the Grateful Dead.It is almost exactly the opposite of what Osborne would have charted for herself, had a career design been an option."It's funny. If I had plotted a course for my career, I would have done something more akin to what Alison Krauss does," said Osborne by phone. "She stays within the same field of bluegrass, and getting deeper and deeper into that well. And you create this expectation on the part of the audience."
Osborne says her set at Jazz Aspen Snowmass' Labor Day Festival (at 4:15 p.m. Saturday) will be a mixed bag of tunes: material from the new, as-yet untitled album she has completed; a cover of Dolly Parton's "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," which Osborne recorded for the 2003 Parton tribute album "Just Because I'm a Woman." There will be tunes from her last few CDs - which range from "Righteous Love," a soulful, sexy 2000 album of mostly original material to 2002's "How Sweet It Is," which reinvented such rock and soul classics as "Only You Know and I Know," "Why Can't We Live Together" and "I'll Be Around."And there will be a Grateful Dead song or two. "I know there will be some Deadheads there, and I don't want to leave them hanging," she added."With me, it's so eclectic and all over the map that no one knows what to expect," added Osborne, slightly distracted by the cold that is affecting her 8-month-old daughter, but seemingly carefree about the variety that has marked her music. "It may not be a great career move, but all these things - singing with the Funk Brothers and the Dead, singing a Dolly Parton song - is great. I'm welcome to all these different worlds, and that's been wonderful."She may have set herself on the twisting road at New York University. Osborne, who spent much of her childhood listening to the black radio station in her native Kentucky, went to New York to study documentary filmmaking. But after four years and no degree, she found herself spending most of her time in the downtown rock clubs that were taking off."I stumbled on this little scene. And little by little, that scene took over my life," said Osborne, who was part of a crowd - with Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors and Jono Manson - which would become the start of the jam-band world. "You could make a living being a blues musician. There were a lot of clubs where you could play this type of music every night. And a lot of roots rock clubs, and bands like the Holmes Brothers, Chris Whitley and Blues Traveler playing opposite sides of the street corner. And a lot of camaraderie. Nobody was thinking of record deals, so there wasn't any feeling of competition."But Osborne did break out in a big way with "Relish," released by Mercury Records. The album, which teamed the singer with '80s Philadelphia hitmakers the Hooters, sold in massive quantities on the back of the single, "One of Us."While quibbling with her label, five years went by before Osborne released "Righteous Love." The record, released by Interscope, was not nearly as commercially successful as "Relish."So instead of chasing further pop stardom, Osborne took a turn. She appeared as the principal vocalist in "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," the popular documentary film about the Funk Brothers, the group of unsung Motown instrumentalists.And then she turned about as far as she could. Osborne spent much of 2003 as a full-fledged member of the Dead, mostly taking the vocal parts of the late Jerry Garcia. It was, curiously, a relationship that began in Snowmass Village, where Osborne shared a bill with Ratdog, a band led by the Dead's Bob Weir, at the 1997 Labor Day Festival."It was like Grateful Dead bootcamp, jumping in like that," said Osborne, who had never been much of a Dead fan, much less a Deadhead. "I had to learn so much material, literally learning the songs the day of the show - and then doing the same thing the next day, because they never played the same songs."But the experience was so great. That's what the music is about, the band and the audience elevating each other. I worried that it would be people sitting back and judging me. But it wasn't like that at all."Osborne is showing the faintest sign of settling into something consistent. Last year, she got together in Philadelphia with Eric Bazilian, part of the team that produced "Relish." Rob Hyman, another of the "Relish" collaborators, happened to stop by, and they wrote and recorded for several days."After a week, I thought, there's something missing here. It was Rick Chertoff," the final member of the "Relish" crew, said Osborne. Chertoff had time in his schedule, and the four made their follow-up to "Relish," 10 years later."If something's real successful, that's the obvious thing, to try it again," Osborne said.Osborne hasn't taken the obvious course. And it doesn't look as if she'll be starting soon. Her next project, which she is currently recording, is a collection of Christmas tunes. The album was the idea of Tor Hyams, a producer who has worked with Perry Farrell and metal guitarist Vivian Campbell. The album is being specially recorded for Barnes & Noble."At first, I thought it was cheesy," Osborne said. "But then I thought, how do you not make this cheesy? I looked for songs that are not 'Jingle Bells' and 'Frosty the Snowman.'" The album will include takes on Louis Armstrong's "Christmas in New Orleans," Robbie Robertson's "Christmas Must Be Tonight" and the spirituals "Children Go Where I Send Thee" and "A Great Day in December."Presumably, none of those will appear on the Labor Day Festival setlist.Stewart Oksenhorn's e-mail address is
stewart@aspentimes.com

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