LIVE: Joan Osborne Attains Escape Velocity at The Egg, 09/09/2021
Will Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” become a universal descriptor for the loneliness of a sequestered humanity where even God is lonely, “trying to make his way home/back up to Heaven all alone/nobody callin’ on the phone/’cept for the Pope maybe in Rome?”
If her spectacular performance Thursday night at The Egg is any indication, her career-defining song may well become as ubiquitous to humanity’s current predicament as Don McClean’s “American Pie” has been in describing the death of good pop music 40 years ago.
Osborne’s hit single was on Relish, an album nominated for six Grammys in 1995 including Song of the Year. Osborne is currently on tour performing in order all 12 of the songs from that album. The second song on that album is Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” She took a page out of Bob Dylan’s book in that her renditions of these now 26-year-old songs are very different than the original recorded versions. She changed the lyric “One of Us” from “The Pope maybe in Rome” to “The Pope she’s in Rome” and admitted she was a little embarrassed about the lyrics to “Let’s Get Naked.” But it was the arrangements by guitarist Jack Petruzelli and keyboardist Keith Cotton that almost stole the show from her.
Petruzelli’s guitar work is so nuanced that it nearly becomes a second vocalist in a duet with Joan. At the same time, his dexterity provides an intense bite that you don’t hear on the recorded versions. Likewise, Cotton’s playing was enough to make the two instrumentalists all that was necessary in arrangements that never missed the fact there was no drummer on stage.
The venue traditionally can make a huge difference in the quality or at least intensity on any one night of a given artist’s tour. I know, for instance, when I see a legendary blues performer at King Biscuit Blues Festival on the banks of the Mississippi in Arkansas I’m very likely going to experience a more intense and emotional delivery than when I hear the same musician locally. The pandemic seems to have eliminated that disparity completely. I saw Mississippi bluesman Zak Harmon take a lathered crowd to heaven in a tent at Chenango Blues Festival in a performance that for me will probably be my defining memory of this storied artist. I feel the same way about Joan’s show at The Egg.
I first presented Joan at Takin’ It to the Streets in Schenectady’s Central Park in the early ’90s when she was still in bell bottoms. I’ve seen her at the Palace in Albany and enjoyed her opening for Mavis Staples at Proctor’s Theater, Schenectady in 2015. I worked with her in getting together with Schenectady’s Rev. Rouse. (Joan produced a CD with Rev. Rouse and The Holmes Brothers.) Joan has never phoned it in, but her performance at The Egg was celestial. It’s like we’re all together, thankful to be alive and experiencing an almost religious awakening.
One of the songs from Relish is Sonny Boy Williamson’s delta blues classic “Help Me” which I put in regular rotation on my WPSN show in the early ’90s. Her version at The Egg was spectacular enough – and very different – to raise Sonny Boy from his grave.
Madeleine Peyroux’s opening set was likewise transcendent, earning her several standing ovations. She performed her 2004 multiplatinum release, Careless Love, with her jazz-inflected interpretations of music by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Elliot Smith. Very different from Joan’s style, she played with a crack trio in a style that transported the crowd to Birdland. It’s a credit to the audience that they appreciated her performance as much as they did Joan’s, as different as it was.