Grammy-nominated vocalist to bring Dylan-inspired works to Livermore
By Lou Fancher
Author Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, can only hope that Joan Osborne likes his novels, short stories or screenplays.
If she does, the soulful seven-time Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter might — as she has done with the work of 2016 Nobel prize-winner Bob Dylan — warble choice words from Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day” or key phrases from his dystopian “Never Let Me Go.”
Breathing new life into Nobel-worthy works, the Kentucky native is known to take inspiration from a concert gig, record an album and embark on a national tour.
Even if Ishiguro’s Osborne day never arrives, Dylan’s has. Five months after a sold-out show at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, Osborne returns to the Bay Area Oct. 27, bringing the genius in 13 songs drawn from five decades of Dylan’s Nobel Prize-winning career to Livermore’s Bankhead Theater. Joining her are guitarist Jack Petruzzelli and keyboardist Keith Cotton.
It was while singing the songs of Dylan during residencies at New York City’s Café Carlyle that Osborne and her co-producers, Petruzzelli and Cotton, cooked up the plan to record Dylan’s iconic songs in a compilation not unlike Ella Fitzgerald’s Great American Songbook albums.
“Ella’s series had eight or nine songwriters,” Osborne said. “I thought about how I might do something similar. I hope Dylan is the first in a series.” Future albums may feature albums with songs by Lou Reed, Neil Young and Lucinda Williams, among others.
Osborne, no slouch as a songwriter herself (see “Relish,” “Righteous Love,” “Love and Hate” and more), is celebrated for her pop, soul, R&B, country and blues covers. Her wide range of talent isn’t due solely to open-mindedness, but to a chocolatey-smooth sound that branches when called for by a song into raw, rough earnestness or funky, have-fun high jinks or twangy country crooning.
“When you’re doing any covering of other people’s material, your job is to bring out something that hasn’t been discovered yet. When you have an artist of the depth and richness of Bob Dylan, you tend to go to emotional terrains that you haven’t gone to in your own work,” she said.
Because she “cut her teeth” as a singer in part by performing from early on Dylan’s folk-based, American idiom-filled work, Osborne didn’t actually discover new technical aspects to her voice while working on the project. But with years of singing, the 55-year-old says a deep richness and new textures she calls “seasoning” have appeared.
Because her voice and Dylan’s are worlds apart, Osborne never pursued imitation while adapting the songs. “The point was to take the song, divorce it from Dylan’s interpretation, view it as chord progressions, the melody, the lyrics, and do it again from scratch. In that way, it really was about finding the material I loved and connecting that with my voice in a way that the song and my voice blossom.”
Whittling down Dylan’s vast playlist, the album offers familiar classics, including “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” Arguably, what makes the record — and the tour — special are less-focused-on gems: “Masters of War;” “Ring Them Bells;” and “High Water (For Charlie Patton).” The last of these, drawn from Dylan’s 2001 album, Love and Theft, is given an upped tempo and more propulsive arrangement.
“I love the Dylan version: It has almost a philosophical distance. I wanted to give it a sense of urgency.” Born out in the current hurricane season, she says are parallel’s to the song’s impending disaster, levees breaking, small towns flooding. “Looked at through the lens of today, (the lyrics are) talking about climate change. We’re in the middle of it.”
Political songs with stories told in allegorical fashion, she insists are needed, now and always. “We’re in a moment of challenge and some would say a moment of crisis. We need artists to help us put words to things we’re feeling.”
Music also unifies and is revival, relief from shouldering the responsibility of trying to be a good citizen, to march all the marches. “It’s a way to renew ourselves and come together as a community — and not just (with) people who agree with each other. Music can be a neutral place where we can recognize our common humanity.”
Of course, music is also a source for renewed energy. The poetry of Dylan’s lyrics, the seriousness and success he exemplifies, she says has “primed the pump” of artists from The Beatles to just about anyone in the songwriting game. “Living with the material, singing the best of the best, it can’t help but shape you,” she said.