Joan Osborne (Photo courtesy the artist)
Joan Osborne achieved breakthrough fame and success in the ’90s with “One Of Us.” It didn’t come overnight, though; she had been playing small clubs for years. And while she still sings that song, her career arc has gone back to mining much of the interpretive work in roots music she came up doing. Along the way, she’s received a Grammy nomination (for Best Blues album for Breakfast in Bed), recorded the songs of Bob Dylan and others, and still found time for her own original songs along the way.
Joan’s influences are eclectic, but she probably draws most heavily from the blues, so it’s fitting that she began her performance at The Birchmere recently with a cover of Muddy Waters’s classic “I Want To Be Love,” which she recorded on Bring It On Home.
Joan then pivoted to Songs of Bob Dylan, singing one of his deeper cuts, “High Water.” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which followed, was worked up for the album, but never recorded; she stressed that you will only hear it when you come to see her live show. She returned to the album twice during the evening, with “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Serve Somebody,” which she sang as the encore.
Early in the pandemic, Joan released a new album of original material, Trouble and Strife. Introducing the title cut at The Birchmere on March 31, she talked about how “we’re living in a time when it’s very easy to be discouraged,” and she spoke about the power of music to bring people together. This is something that that gets said a lot, but not many people really appreciate this. When you’re at a concert, you have at least one thing in common with everyone else there. It’s hard for me to start conversations with strangers, but it’s a lot easier at concerts, but I know exactly what to talk about; I know the common ground we have to start with. When you know you’re standing on common ground with people, it becomes infinitely easier to approach them and talk to them. From the album, she also performed “Whole Wide World.”
Stream “Whole Wide World” by Joan Osborne on YouTube:
This year, Joan put out on archival release, Radio Waves, of live performances from radio stations from over the years. When she was moving apartments, she found an old box full of tapes that she hadn’t even realized she still had, and the recordings were pulled from these. They included the R&B classic “Shake Your Hips” and alternate version of “One of Us,” a slowed-down piano ballad, in which style she performed the song Thursday night.
“Pensacola” is a fan favorite and, Joan explained, one of her fans had gone online and absolutely begged her to sing it. The set also included the beguiling “Spider Web,” which she recorded on Relish, the 1995 album that broke open her career. A special highlight was a guest appearance by Sherman Holmes, who with his brothers, was a member of the fantastic soul/blues/gospel trio The Holmes Brothers. Sherman is getting on in years, but his voice still sounds incredible, and it was a really a privilege to see this remarkable gentleman, who has had such a long and truly fine musical career, recording with likes of Willie Nelson, Rosanne Coash, and Levon Helm, just to name a few. I cannot recommend their records enough.
Pop stardom is fickle and fleeting, but real music endures. And for 30 years, Joan Osborne has been making real music. Whether she’s singing her own compositions or interpreting the work of other artists, her voice always brings life to the words. “One of Us” is a great song, but it’s only the surface level of Joan Osborne, and she has some deep waters.