Hymns, Hits, and a Multitude of Sins
Way back in August of 1995 (August 24, to be exact), I saw Joan Osborne perform for the first time. By the end of the opening song (“Pensacola,” to be specific), I was smitten. In the 19 years since that night in Boulder’s Fox Theatre, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Osborne perform more than a dozen times. Each time, she has reminded me why she’s one of my favorite all-time voices and performers. Last night, at Nashville’s new City Winery, she did it again. And she did it without a band. My über-talented musical sidekick and I were both thrilled to be there.
With no introduction and no words, Osborne — with her own musical sidekick, Keith Cotton, on piano, guitar, and synth — grinned her way into “Where We Start,” the first cut from 2014’s Love and Hate. Osborne’s huge voice more than filled the cavernous room that is City Winery. Though the album’s lushly lilting strings were missed, Cotton took up as much space as he could with the piano and the whole thing flowed beautifully. Introducing the second song, Osborne veered off into an a cappella rendering of George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” I leaned over and said, “She can sing anything” to which the sidekick replied, “She can sell anything.” And, boy howdy, did she sing and sell “Work on Me” with the help of “a little app called Funk Box” that lifted the number up with some programmed percussion. Some of the more upbeat cuts from Love and Hate — “Mongrels” and “Up All Night” — didn’t work quite as well in the spartan setting.
But the big, sweeping melody of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” which was on Osborne’s Pretty Little Stranger album, gave her voice all the room it needed to swoop and soar. And Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved,” from her Bring It on Home LP, offered the kind of slinky, jazzy Blues which let that very same voice feel intimate, immediate. After Ike Turner’s “Game of Love” from that same record, Osborne slung the acoustic guitar over her shoulder and the familiar opening to “St. Teresa” was greeted with an enthusiastic response from the crowd. The inventive duo spin on the one-time hit delivered on the presumed promise, particularly the vocal lick tacked on to the very end.
Saying that “at this point in my life and career, I think it’s okay for me to sing songs just because I like them,” Osborne treated us to her take on “Angel from Montgomery.” Next came the gentle and lovely “Raga” which included a melody fashioned by Cotton supporting lyrics inspired by Dorianne Laux’s “The Shipfitter’s Wife.” For the penultimate song of the set, Osborne turned “One of Us” into a mesmerizing piano ballad that was far more hymn than hit. Instead of cutting loose, she kept it contained and let the song’s yearning rise on up. And, why not? She has nothing to prove. As floored as I was by the piece, my sidekick said, “That voice! It covers a multitude of sins, doesn’t it?”
Osborne closed the set with “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?” which she performed in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary. The audience couldn’t have been more excited for this one. Osborne put everything she had into it, even winding herself with the last lick. For the encore, Osborne brought it all back to Nashville with, “When the Blue Hour Comes,” a Rodney Crowell-Roy Orbison composition she recorded right here in Music City for Pretty Little Stranger.
As stunning as Osborne’s performance was in 1995, her voice has only become more nuanced, balanced, and controlled over the years. And, while having the support of a band is a more natural, fitting habitat for all Osborne brings to a live performance, her shining in this duo setting just further confirms how worthy of adoration and admiration she really is.