By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
It’s somewhat of a unique phenomenon, that moment when an artist with a voice from heaven like Joan Osborne chooses to roll an entire album of covers from a guy who wrote some of the most iconic songs ever, but well, let’s be honest, never had the most melodious vocals.
But it can actually be a blessing, because when you pair incredible lyrics with some of music’s most true and fabulous pipes, the results can be memorable. And on Osborne’s superb 2017 record Songs Of Bob Dylan, of which she is performing a good chunk of on her current tour which hits DC’s City Winery on April 27th, Osborne breathes new life into both Dylan classics and deep cuts, lending a fresh take on many songs that people know by heart. And that was exactly the singer’s intention – to give listeners his songs with her spin.
“As an interpreter, that’s something you have to work with, your own voice, and your own ideas,” Osborne told me on a brief break from the Songs of Bob Dylan-titled tour. “And if you’re just going to copy what someone else has done, to me there’s no point in doing that at all. Because why wouldn’t anyone just go back and find the original version, if you’re just going to try to make a carbon copy of it? So that was part of the work of getting the material ready, how are we going to find that sweet spot where our range of ideas meets my voice, to really kind of blossom in to something interesting and different.”
Choosing from such a massive and brilliant catalog like Dylan’s might sound daunting, but for Osborne, it was an exhilarating challenge to match her style and presentation with his. In the track selection process, she wanted to be sure to not only pay homage to Dylan’s part-of-our-DNA folk classics from yore, but also some lesser known Dylan gems, to encapsulate the breadth of his magic.
“We had a couple of lenses that we wanted to look through when we focused on this material, and one of them was to pick songs not only from the 60’s and 70’s which people tend to be very familiar with, but also to dig into the catalog from the 80’s and the 90’s. And just sort of give a nod to the fact that he has continued to be an incredible writer throughout his career, that he not only was a giant back when, but he’s continued to put out this great work. And then the other sort of rubric that we used was wanting to have songs that people would be familiar with and would know, like ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ for instance or ‘Highway 61,’ but also to do some deep cuts, songs like ‘Ring Them Bells.’“
Osborne admits that she and her stellar cohorts — guitarist Jack Petruzzelli (Patti Smith, The Fab Faux) and keyboardist Keith Cotton (Idina Menzel, Chris Cornell) — agonized a bit right before releasing their take on “Mr. Zimmerman” in front of the masses, worrying that critics might not respond well to their renditions of the legend’s music.
“There were definitely some moments in the last day or so before we were about to put this out in front of people, where we were like, is anybody going to like this? Are we doing something really stupid here?” Osborne explained. “Then again, it’s not like nobody else has covered Dylan tunes … So in that sense, you can kind of give yourself permission.”
There are some who might call it blasphemous to cover the great and powerful Oz…uh, Dylan. But Osborne is no stranger to recording other artist’s songs, and she relishes the challenge and the experience of putting her stamp on them. It’s worthy to note that, based on the acclaim for both the record and her live performances, Osborne’s take on Dylan turned out just fine.
“My favorite records are people singing and performing other people’s songs, so I feel like that’s a legitimate thing to do in the way that a jazz musician would. So I tried to quiet the doubts that always come when you’re going to do something new, and just decide to see what people’s reactions were,” she said. “Thankfully, we have gotten some really great responses from the fans, and from the critics. And so…here we are.”
Joan Osborne with special guest LEA performs at City Winery, 1350 Okie Street NE, on Saturday April 27. For tickets please click here.