March 29, 2002
When Swedish-born Anders Osborne landed in New Orleans in 1987, after two years bouncing around the world from Israel to Yugoslavia to Egypt to Crete, it struck him almost immediately that he had found his home.
So when you hear Osborne’s music, and see his band, you assume that Osborne was working from a blueprint that is essential New Orleans. Osborne’s roots-rock band – which comes to Aspen for a performance at the Grottos tonight, Friday, March 29 – is one that could only come from the city where Louis Armstrong was born, where jazz was invented, and where the site of a brass band marching through the streets is an almost daily event. Osborne’s band is a quartet anchored by Osborne’s longtime bandmate Kirk Joseph on sousaphone, along with Tim Green on saxophone, Doug Belote on drums, and Osborne himself on guitar and vocals. There’s no bass, no keyboards; instead, the sousaphone and saxophone convey clearly that this band does, indeed, come from New Orleans.
But Osborne’s unusual combo wasn’t born from some master plan to make modern roots music with a clear New Orleans twist. The musicians, he says, are just people he happened to find a rapport with. The instruments they play are mostly coincidental, and not as important as the musical personalities.
“It was kind of an accident,” said Osborne, about the assembling of his current quartet. “Usually, I just run into people. And we tend to click, or not click.”
The biggest click was with Joseph, whose sousaphone also holds down the bottom end for the pre-eminent New Orleans brass ensemble, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Joseph has been the center of Osborne’s band for some five years.
“I ran into Kirk in the now-defunct club, Benny’s, and we would jam,” said Osborne. “So I invited him to come record with me for an album, ‘New Madrid,’ that never came out. And then it happened the same way with Tim Green.”
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When Osborne began his touring career in the mid-’90s, it was a different kind of sound that was coming out. The music was still led by Osborne’s singer-songwriter sensibility, combined with a tendency to extend the jams onstage. But instead of brass being the primary complement to Osborne’s electric guitar, there was the violin and honey-toned voice of Theresa Andersson, Osborne’s former girlfriend. As Andersson and Osborne parted ways, and Osborne began to click with various musicians who had been soaking in the New Orleans style for years or decades, another sound emerged.
“There wasn’t a thought behind it to make it come out a certain way,” said Osborne. “It’s been more through running into these people than an actual idea I had envisioned. It’s from song to song and one idea to the next. Me, Tim and Kirk – it just clicks. And they can’t help but sound like brass instruments. I just like the way it feels to play with these guys.
“It’s not a tradition thing. It’s about getting along. It’s such a personal thing to play music. When I play live, we need to bond. There are a lot of fantastic players all over the place, and these are the guys I really enjoy playing with.”
It is true that Osborne’s music isn’t saturated with the New Orleans influence. His string of albums – including last year’s highly regarded “Ash Wednesday Blues,” and 1995’s “Which Way to Here” on Okeh-Epic, Osborne’s only major-label release – are marked more by Osborne’s own songwriting style than by an attempt to bring in the New Orleans influence. (A live album, 1998’s “Live at Tipitina’s,” shows a bit more of a Crescent City flair.) But the fact remains that New Orleans and Osborne have fit like a glove.
Though Osborne’s grandfather had been a seaman with a taste for New Orleans, and Osborne was close with his grandfather, it wasn’t until Osborne was living in Yugoslavia that he started hearing about New Orleans as a musical city.
“I met someone from New Orleans,” said Osborne, who was spending two years moving from country to country, picking fruit, washing dishes, working on a horse farm, and playing street-corner guitar. “He said, ‘You ought to come there. Your music sounds like New Orleans. And the food and the culture are great there.’
“Once I got there, I made the connections – Fats Domino, jazz. But prior to coming here, I didn’t know about New Orleans.”
What Osborne found out was that he liked more than just the music. “The music came second,” he said. “I was more of a writer, traveling around with a guitar. I wasn’t thinking of it as a career. I wasn’t thinking about how New Orleans would influence me. I was just enjoying it here. Anyplace you live will influence you mentally, if you let it.”
Over the last few years, Osborne has had the chance to see how another American music capital works. Signed as a staff writer with Universal for the past five years, Osborne has spent time in Nashville, writing, performing and getting a feel for the scene. He prefers New Orleans.
“There’s so much music and it’s so free and so spiritual the way it’s being played,” said Osborne, who has had his songs recorded by Keb’ Mo’, Jonny Lang and Tim McGraw. “It’s a beautiful place. It’s helped me a lot to go for it. There’s very little fear of what is a right or wrong note. It’s not a showcase – it’s about filling the room with all the old, traditional stuff.
“I work in Nashville a lot, as a writer, and it’s a very different culture. So different. It’s more business. Everybody’s focused on performing the great showcase, giving the perfect performance.”