The first time I saw Joan Osborne sing was in Manhattan in the ’80s where she played every Tuesday night at the Rodeo Bar. A guy I worked with liked her a lot, so I went. She was deep blues and awesome.
Next thing I knew, some five years later, she had a hit all over the radio, “One of Us,” which didn’t sound much like the bluesy songs she sang at the bar. Then, a few years later again, she showed up singing with post-Grateful Dead collectives, like The Dead, and Phil and Friends. She fit in OK there, but not perfectly — she wasn’t her cool bluesy self nor did she play the role of Donna Jean Gadchaux. Four years ago she played Alive at Five in Albany and seemed back to her soulful New York City early bar band days.
But Sunday night at the Egg’s sold-out Swyer Theater, she dipped further deeply into the her well of blues — some raw, some sultry, and every one delivered directly and powerfully. This was a long way from her radio play.
Twenty minutes into the show, she sang “Shake Your Hips,” a dark boogie-woogie that her band built to a crescendo, with Osborne pushing them vocally. This song they’ve no doubt played countless times together, yet they still kicked hard with earnest, individually and collectively, raising the energy of the night instantly. The crowd jumped to its feet, a special feat in the well-behaved Swyer Theater.
Osborne slowed things down with Otis Redding’s “Champagne and Wine.” All these songs were from her latest release, “Bring it on Home,” a collection of traditional blues with remakes of tunes from Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bill Withers and more. The band with her is the same group on the album, so these are the guys who have dissected and rehearsed every nook and cranny of the setlist. As a result, the arrangements were well-polished and predictable, but still had the punch that kept energy high and mostly real,
She is a sexy singer and likes to be physical during her blues, like during “I Want to Be Loved,” her beautifully crude, sensual tone filling the room. Whatever her band did, it was hard not to watch her slink around the stage.
She left the blues record for a few of her upcoming, unreleased tunes, a project she called “Love and Hate.” These had a contemporary, adult pop feel. They were good, because she’s good, but it felt like cocktail music and her unique rawness, the thing that keeps her special, was omitted.
She covered Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” It was, of course, pretty. But as good as she is, she’s best when she sings her mean-as-dirt blues, and fortunately, she returned with to them to bring the show home, with “Spider Web” and a fantastic “St. Theresa” from her early record. Yes, she closed with “One of Us.” She has to.
She’s been doing this a long time. It’s so great to see her loyal to the American songbook.
British singer-songwriter James Maddock opened the show with a solo set. He performed with great confidence, as if we were there to see him, though his songs of lost love more than humbled, and endeared, him to us. His lyrical imagery was excellent with phrases like, “I’m gonna wrap my coat around you.” He also offered us nice lines to take home to our partners, like, “You were beautiful then, but you’re way more beautiful now.”
For a big laugh, he asked us to cheer real loud after the first line of his next song, so that Osborne, backstage, would think he was a great opening act. We complied, and in some ways it was genuine.