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Arts & Entertainment

Joan Osborne Returns to ‘Favorite Venue’ – The Tarrytown Music Hall

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November 3, 2022

By W.B. King—

Looking up from a pew in the church her family attended in Anchorage, Kentucky, a young Joan Osborne was struck by one singer’s melody arising from the chorus of congregants.

“I remember being hypnotized by my Dad’s voice as a little, little kid—it was beautiful,” Osborne told The Hudson Independent. “My Mom would sing, too. They actually met singing in the church choir. They both had lovely singing voices.”

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Between her parents and five siblings, there were always songs filling the air in the Osborne home. One record in particular took countless spins on the turntable making a significant impact. “We didn’t play instruments or have a family band, but we did sing quite a bit. I loved the Sound of Music. We had the soundtrack album. I would sit and listen to it and sing along with it,” she recalled. “I would pick a person to be and sing all of their parts all the way through the record then I would go back to the beginning and pick a different person to be. I was Julie Andrews, the middle kid, and then the youngest kid. I would do that for hours, hours and hours. I just loved singing.”

Around age 12, Osborne’s music teacher and choir conductor, Carolyn Browning, recognized her talent, becoming a mentor and champion. “She was very encouraging to me and would give me the most complicated parts to sing in the chorus at school performances,” Osborne shared. “Some were fairly complicated pieces with five and six part harmonies of old English Madrigal songs and things like that.”

Finding the Right Stage

As time marched on, Osborne, now in high school, was drawn to different styles of music. “I was a child of the ‘70s and listened to the incredible music of the time on the AM radio station,” she said. “Back in the day, the pop radio station would play a Charlie Rich song, and then a Rolling Stones song and then The Meters, and then The Who—it was very eclectic.”

By the time college rolled around, her artistic pursuits were less about singing and more so focused on theatre. She spent more than a year studying theatre arts at the University of Louisville. “I directed a play in the black box theatre there and really, really liked it,” Osborne said.

In an effort to calculate her chances of having a career in the niche field, she researched how many Americans went to the theater on an annual basis. “It was a very small percentage of people. Then I looked up how many people went to see movies or watched television and it was much, much higher,” she said. “I figured if I was really interested in this, I should pursue it in an arena where there was a bit more space and room to do something.”

The next stop for Osborne was New York University’s film school where she spent three years exploring art film concepts opposed to Hollywood blockbusters. “People like Spike Lee were just coming out of there and Martin Scorsese had come out of there, so independent film heroes could be found there,” she said.

God Bless the Child

Enthralled with what she was learning at NYU, Osborne kept a low musical profile—her new friends were unaware of her talent.  “I was hanging out with this guy who lived in my building and he invited me to go out to have a drink. We went to the very first bar, which was on the corner, a place called the Abilene blues bar,” she said. “The band had just finished but the piano player was just sort of playing for himself and for the handful of people still in the club.”

Toward the end of the evening, Osborne’s friend “dared” her to get up and sing with the pianist, which came as a complete surprise. “I had never sung for him and I wasn’t singing at all at that point,” she said. “So I took him up on the dare. The piano player and I realized we both knew a lot of Billie Holiday songs, so I sang ‘God Bless the Child.’”

Based on the strength of that informal performance, she was invited back to sing at the weekly “blues” open mic. To ensure she would have different material to perform each Tuesday night, she went to the library and checked out and studied Etta James and Muddy Waters records, among others.

“It really captivated me. I soon realized there was this whole, huge music scene going on in New York at the time—very vibrant with tons of clubs and bands,” she recalled.

While Osborne was focused on blues material, there were singer-songwriters like Jeff Buckley and Chris Whitley who also caught her attention performing at local clubs along with bands like the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler.  “Little by little I got drawn into it more and more to the point that all I wanted to do was music,” she said.

Knowing that college “would always be there,” Osborne, then 21, seized the moment, determined to see where her reignited passion for music would lead.

‘Every Stone a Story, Like a Rosary’

While she soon gained attention from players and producers in New York’s music scene, a record deal that aligned with her ethos wasn’t in the cards. Undeterred, Osborne began her own label, Womanly Hips Records, and released the album, Soul Show: Live at Delta 88, in 1991, which was followed two years later by Blue Million Miles. Despite decent sales—some 10,000 copies, a major label deal still wasn’t in the offering.

When she later crossed paths with Cyndi Lauper’s hit producer, Rick Chertoff, and music collaborators from The Hooters, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, a seismic career shift was realized resulting in her Grammy-nominated album Relish (1995), which included hit singles “St. Theresa” and “One of Us.”

“In certain ways, I’m not one who naturally takes to the stage. I’ve developed that ability to be okay onstage in front of people but it gets exponentially more intense if you have a hit song,” Osborne said of her initial rise to fame. “It was great to feel that something that I was a part of had touched so many people and meant something to so many people—it was incredibly gratifying. As an artist that is what you hope and dream for, but for me personally it was a bit uncomfortable.”

She would eventually find her groove in the spotlight, cultivating a wide-ranging career that has spanned 25-plus years since Relish topped the charts. Along with continually writing and recording new material, she co-headlined the popular Lilith Tour in the late 1990s, played with The Funk Brothers, appearing in the acclaimed documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and toured with remaining members of The Grateful Dead in 2003.

“You have the music and what’s happening on stage, but the band is also sort of an excuse for this particular community to come together…there is all this other stuff going on around that was really interesting to me. It was a whole scene,” Osborne recalled of her days with The Dead. “I had not encountered that before. I hadn’t been to any Dead shows before they hired me for the gig.”

While she enjoyed spending time with founding members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter, her real understanding of the band came by studying their songs—what she referred to as Grateful Dead boot camp.

“I had to learn all that material in a short space of time. They would do a four-hour show one night and the next night do another four-hour show completely different than the one they did and then it would be different again the next night,” Osborne recalled with a laugh. “So I had to be ready to do any number of hundreds of songs they had. I spent most of my time in my dressing room with my headphones on going over my parts and working on my harmonies. Digesting all that material gave me a particular insight and got my brain working in a particular way about lyrics and songs.”

From her experiences playing with The Dead, as well as the year prior as the opening act for the Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks), Osborne was inspired to write her fourth album, Pretty Little Stranger (2006). “I gravitated toward the bluesier songs like ‘Mr. Charlie,’ but I also loved songs like ‘Stella Blue’ and ‘Eyes of the World’—so many great songs,” Osborne said of The Grateful Dead catalog. “Pretty Little Stranger was kind of a country record so Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty era [albums] was what I was really drawing from as well as a lot of the country music I love.”

Radio Waves

The medium of radio remains an informative force in Osborne’s orbit. When she takes the stage at The Tarrytown Music Hall on Friday November 18, 2022, it will be in support of her latest album, Radio Waves (2022).

The 13-track offering, released on Womanly Hip Records, allows listeners to explore live performances recorded throughout her illustrious career. The idea for the album came during the pandemic when she was locked down.

“I literally was cleaning my house—cleaning closets out and found in the back a bunch of boxes full of CDs and audio files, a trove of live material throughout my working life,” she said.

“Instead of just sealing the box up and pushing it to the back of the closet, I opened it—a trip down memory lane,” she continued. “There were a lot of high-quality recordings from live shows and especially from radio station visits. It seemed like a great thing to put out since I couldn’t go anywhere and play live shows.”

Like Radio Waves, she will be performing songs from her entire career, including tracks from Trouble and Strife (2020), which she said is her most “political” album to date, and not coincidentally followed her 2017 album, Songs of Bob Dylan.

“Bob Dylan has this way of writing political songs that are open enough so that they don’t get dated. His lyrics refer to things that are much more elemental that could be happening in the Bible or happening yesterday,” she said. “I felt that was a real lesson for me. I was singing his songs night after night and I started to wrap my mind around how to make a song that is topical and political but is open-ended and poetic enough that it can be useful in more than one situation.”

Intimate but Lush

On this tour, Osborne is joined by long time musical collaborator and guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, who also plays in The Beatles cover band, The Fab Faux, and celebrated, versatile keyboardist Keith Cotton.  “The three of us have worked together as a trio for a while so we have taken these songs and really developed them—they are unique arrangements,” said Osborne. “The audiences have responded really well. It’s intimate but very lush.”

The concert will open with a set of music from Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Osborne first met Campbell in the 1990s when he was working with Tracy Chapman, then later when he was playing guitar in Bob Dylan’s band, and then again when they shared the stage as members of Phil Lesh and Friends. “I’m super excited to be playing with Larry and Teresa. I’ve known Larry for many, many years,” Osborne said, adding that the audience can “count on” collaborations with Campbell and Williams.

“We always do stuff from the Relish album. We will be doing stuff from the Trouble and Strife record…we may dip into a Grateful Dead song or two,” she said of the upcoming show. “We might do some of the blues songs from the [Grammy-nominated] Bring it on Home record and some stuff from Radio Waves,” she continued. “We tend to have blocks of songs that work really well together and that we know the fans are interested in hearing.”

Osborne’s visit to Tarrytown won’t be her first, far from it. Past performances at the Music Hall include a co-headlining bill with Mavis Staples, a gig with Trigger Hippy and a stop in 2018 during her acclaimed “Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan” tour.

“I’m looking forward to playing the venue again,” Osborne said. “It’s one of my favorite venues in the country, if not the world.”

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