When I lived in Los Angeles, I was astounded by America’s taste — who was popular and who wasn’t. At the time, Madonna was all the rage, and I had friends who could write a song in front of me from scratch in half-an-hour. You never heard of them. I could go to a small club in LA or later in seminary, a small club in Boston (Sally and the Sophisto – Cats, anyone?) and see incredible musicians and their tight bands. Then I could turn on the radio and here Brittany Spears or New Kids on The Block or Madonna.
There was clearly no direct connection between talent and popularity. (For people who say Madonna is a genius, I would say as a show-person or as an entertainer, but not as a musician, but that’s just my opinion). My sister is in a band and they are up-and-coming, incredibly musical, and tight in performance, but no radio play or MTV or cover of People magazine. Now, I understand from her, that it’s mostly about luck, more than anything, but it’s a pity. You’d like to think that great musicianship and great talent would be rewarded with great popularity.
All of this was brought home to me last night as Joan Osborne played the Infinity Music Hall in Hartford. It’s a beutiful place, but a relatively small venue — a really good place to see people. It was no more than 1/3 full on the bottom floor, though the balcony might have been full. I couldn’t tell. Billed as the “Joan Osborne Trio”, it was a keyboardist, a guitar player and Osborne on stage, and I felt embarrased for her. It was a Saturday night in Hartford and — if talent and musicality were what sold out shows– this one would have had a line out the door.
Alas, what was good for us was a loss for others. She was great, though I suspect she was having some sort of cold as she was drinking hot tea all during the show. Despite what ever that was, and despite the small crowd, she was an absolute “trouper” about it all.
She opened with a couple of old soul covers that really “smoked”, her growl and smoothness alternating in a way that said “sex” and her body moved perfectly to capture the feeling. This wasn’t raunchy in any way that a teenager would understand (no baloon penises or cut out leather here), but it was grown-up, experienced sexy. And it wasn’t masturbatory, either. She performed the melody and the rythym to the band while they played off each other with soulful tension, pauses and notes used just enough to capture the essence of the feeling. Great songs, great music, and they were “on” like this all night.
I’ve been following Osborne’s career since the beginning, with a long gap in between “Right Hand Man” (played on KROQ in LA before “(What If God Was) One of Us” became a huge hit) and her appearance in the movie “Standing In the Shadows of Motown”. Since the movie, I have followed her closely, and have been impressed by her command of blue-eyed soul.
Last night, she showed that she commands a variety of styles that I would “roots”. She and the band played songs by Slim Harpo (blues), Gershin (niteclub), Bonnie Raitt (folk -rock-blues), Bob Dylan (folk), the Grateful Dead (who are kind of their own genre), and her own music — “Spider Web”, “St. Theresa” and “One Of Us”, as well as the debut of a song she wrote for Mavis Staples (gospel/soul/protest music), whom she’s toured with and who will win a Kennedy Center award this year. With the rest of her trio playing impeccably, and creating a safe space for her vocals, she had fun (playing a beatbox from her phone and singing about it). She got to laugh about playing the egg-shell shaker in one song, and played a kick-butt tamberine on four or five numbers. In addition to that, there was her guitar playing and her singing which brought it together, reminding you of the human experiences that are shared between cultures — love, sex, awe, sadness, loneliness, and spirituality. She seemed well-acquainted with all of them.
Finally, she sang her most famous song, “One of Us”. As she got up to sing it, my wife wife whispered “how much must she hate this song by now”? and I thought the same thing, expecting the guitar notes I recentlyt learned to open the song. Instead, her piano player played chords slowly to set the tone. She stepped forward to sing and something magical happened. Instead of looking like a well-worn rocker she suddenly looked like a young girl making her First Communion, having a transcendant experience with God. Her hands were folded in front of her and she looked up toward the balcony. While she “owned” all the music she had been playing, this looked like the song owned her. It was amazing. Shortly after that, there was a one song encore and the show was over.
I have since had time to think about the whole “owning” thing, and it occured to me the thing that I most like and respect about Osborne — that other musicians like her. The Funk Brothers or the director of “Standing In the Shadows…” found her, a white girl of all white girls, to sing with them. They, like her, were under-appreciated musicians, mostly used as session musicians. Why? Because she understood how talented they were. Mavis Staples toured with her. Why? Because they both probably sensed the spiritual connection,power, and earthiness that the other brought to music. The Carlyle Hotel in New York City asked her to perform. They, too, must have seen something. The Grateful Dead worked with her as well, because they knew she could handle it, and she fit in with their earthy spirituality thing as well. Given that, the man who wrote “One of Us” or her producer must have chosen that song for her because they thought she’d be right for it.
If you want to know who’s a good musician, who’s got actual musical talent, ask other musicians. Joan Osborne is in the thick of all these great people — and her band performed excellently — because she herself is a great musician and her instrument is herself, soul and all. (By the way, having seen Bonnie Raitt perform it years ago, I can tell you that Osborne did a spot-on version of Angel From Montgomery, as well).
It was a great show. It wasn’t an extravaganza. It wasn’t a spectacle. Apparently, it wasn’t particularly popular, either (though my wife pointed our that we saw it advertised on line, but it wasn’t in the printed advertising which was everywhere). What it was, was great music from a great singer, with a tight, connected band. It was human music.