Joan Osborne on her years-long Bob Dylan covers project
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Joan Osborne Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan
Where: The Temporary at Willits
When: Friday, April 19, 8 p.m.
How much: $46-$60
Joan Osborne felt Bob Dylan’s presence before she ever saw him in person.
In 1998, Osborne — hot off of her mega-hit “One of Us” — was set to record a new duet of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” with Dylan himself, for the TV mini-series “The ’60s.”
She got to the New York City studio early, she recalled, and was hanging out with his band when he entered in silence.
“My back was to the door and when he arrived, even through I couldn’t hear him, I noticed how the weather in the room immediately changed,” she said in a recent phone interview from her country home in upstate New York. “No one really looked at him or talked to him, but all of a sudden everyone became hyper-aware of him, gauging his mood.”
She soon learned the response was from musicians who’d grown used to trying to keep up with him.
“People who work with him develop this low-key vigilance,” she explained, “because he changes his mind very quickly. He has this restless intelligence, where he tries out an idea and by the time he has tried one version of the idea he’s already moved on to something else.”
A lifelong Dylan devotee, Osborne’s singer-songwriter career always had been infused with his music and his influence. Her global sensation of a debut album, in 1995, included her take on the hidden Dylan gem “Man in the Long Black Coat” and she’d frequently included Dylan covers in her live sets.
But she’s gone all in for the past three years, with a full album of Dylan covers and a tour that comes to The Temporary at Willits today. (It’s been several years since she’s been back in the Aspen area, though Osborne has been playing here since a 1997 headlining slot at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival.)
The current project started with a 2016 residency at the Café Carlyle, the legendary cabaret room that’s been running in Upper East Side Manhattan’s Carlyle hotel since 1955. Given two weeks of shows and no creative restraints, Osborne decided to use the residency to immerse in Dylan’s songs.
“We were uncertain if people were going to like it, but from the very first night it’s been really fun and it’s been a joy for us to do this deep dive into this material,” Osborne said.
The Dylan catalog is deeper than the ocean, of course, spanning six decades and 38 albums and the ever-expanding trove of his “Bootleg Series.”
“It was definitely a difficult thing to choose from the hundreds and hundreds of great songs that Bob Dylan has,” Osborne said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s so much to choose from. On the other hand, how do you decide?”
After the residency, she got to work on what would become her “Songs of Bob Dylan” album, released in 2017.
Throughout her long career, Osborne said, she’s kept in the back of her mind the late 1950s run of records by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald that each tackled the catalog of an iconic American songwriter.
“I always thought this was a great idea and something that I would like to do with writers who I feel uniquely drawn to, who are from my era,” she said.
Osborne’s Dylan record offers new spins on the classics and shines a light on some overlooked Dylan compositions.
Her “Highway 61 Revisited” is a dark and ominous country song, her “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is a slow and soulful blues. In “Masters of War,” Osborne puts her formidable voice up front, with a steady acoustic guitar in the background and a gradual build of piano.
The enduring relevance and resonance of Dylan’s early work continues to strike Osborne.
“These things that might have been written about something that was happening in his youth are very relevant to what is going on in the world right now,” Osborne said. “It’s particularly genius in the way that he wrote them that they could be timeless in that way.”
But along with those iconic early Dylan classics, the album spans five decades of the Dylan catalog and unearths some deep cuts like “Dark Eyes” (off Dylan’s largely forgotten 1985 album “Empire Burlesque”) and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (off the definitive late-career Dylan album “Time Out of Mind” from 1997) and “High Water” (from 2001’s “Love and Theft”).
“I wanted to put things on the record that people would know, but also to dig a little deeper to allow people to discover something they didn’t already know,” she said. “We really wanted people — even who are fans of Dylan — to find out something they didn’t already know about him.”
Osborne admitted that even she didn’t know “Dark Eyes” until Patti Smith — who recorded a live duet version of it with Dylan — told her about it. Osborne also has widely expanded her Dylan repertoire as she’s toured with the material over the past two years.
“As you’re on the road and doing the shows night after night, you want to keep it fresh for yourself and for the audience,” she explained. “So we put in some live-only bonus tracks and we are never really sure what those are going to be from night to night.”
Dylan is a towering culture figure and Nobel laureate who also is, somehow, an unknown and seemingly unknowable cipher of a human being. He has worn so many masks, taken on so many personas, revealed so little about his personal life, written and recorded so many hundreds of songs that he is beyond comprehension.
Though she’s spent time with the man and has now spent years studying and performing his work, Osborne remains in the dark like the rest of us.
When Osborne sang with the living members of the Grateful Dead for a stretch, beginning in 2003, they co-headlined a big summer tour with Dylan. They saw each other every day and sang together often onstage, but Dylan — true to form — managed to not quite be there.
“I wouldn’t say he and I were hanging out a lot and that I got to know him as a person,” she said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting down and rapping about our childhood experiences or something. He was funny and nice and charming and all of that, but it was a work situation.”
When Osborne released her album of his songs, she didn’t hear from Dylan directly but he did post a compliment on his Facebook page.
“I was surprised even to get that,” Osborne said with a laugh. “He’s got an awful lot on his plate and talking about someone else covering his work is not something that he has to do. So it was very generous.”
Osborne this spring has been finishing up a new album of original material. After her yearslong deep dive into Dylan’s world, he naturally seeped into her songwriting.
“He’s very funny in this wry, droll kind of way,” she observed. “I’ve tried to bring that out in this new record. … When you immerse yourself in this, it lets you be free in that way — and be humorous and real and bizarre.”