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Joan Osborne Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan

Acclaimed singer takes on the legendary songwriter's material at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center on October 27

When I was a kid, there was a commercial on TV that left a lasting impression on me. It was an ad for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and showed one person walking down the street with a tub of peanut butter and another with a brick of chocolate. The two crash into one another, exclaiming, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” and vice versa, until they realize that the combined flavor of chocolate and peanut butter is an intersection in heaven.

I always think of that ad when two unexpected forces combine to create something sublime, which is certainly the case with Joan Osborne’s amazing new record The Songs of Bob Dylan, Vol. 1. Full disclosure: I’m an enormous Dylanphile and save vacation days for Bob’s California tour stops. And I’ve always appreciated Osborne, from her 1994 breakthrough Relish (she did a terrific cover of Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat) to her work with The Dead awhile back.

When Osborne decided to bring her powerful voice and tasteful arrangements to 13 Dylan songs—from classics like “Highway 61 Revisited” to deep cuts like “Dark Eyes”—she created what has easily turned out to be my favorite album of 2017. Osborne will be performing Dylan’s music live on October 27 at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. I caught up with Osborne recently to chat about her outstanding record and her favorite things about the East Bay.

As soon as I heard the record, it made so much sense. How did it come together?
The idea came as the result of an offer we go to do a residency at the Café Carlyle, this iconic Manhattan venue. It was in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters.

I really wanted to do something in this room, and I had always had loved the records that Ella Fitzgerald did in the 1950s and ’60s, where she would pick a different songwriter—Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart—and do an entire album of their material.

I always thought it would be cool to do my own version of that, interpreting songwriters from my generation. We asked the Carlyle what they thought of us using the residency as a way to take a deep dive into Dylan’s material and they loved the idea.

How did you pick the setlist?
When you think about an artist like Dylan, on one hand its great that he has 100s of songs to choose from. On the other, how do you choose from 100s of songs? (Laughs)

I wanted to make sure we did songs from throughout his career, some of his classics from the 1960s but also from albums like Oh Mercy, which is one of my favorites. And his later material, from Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, is so strong, that needed to be represented.

We definitely want to include a few recognizable classics “Tangled Up In Blue,” but also some great album cuts. Patty Smith suggested I look into “Dark Eyes,” which I wasn’t familiar with. And I remembered that Chris Whitley had done this great Dylan song on one of his albums, which turned out to “Spanish Harlem Incident.”

It was fascinating to put this group of songs together and present them as a new album.

You mentioned Oh Mercy as a favorite album. You covered “Man in the Long Black Coat” on your Relish and “Ring Them Bells” on this record. What was it about Oh Mercy that jumped out from his catalog?
I think it was the first album of his that meant a lot to me. I always knew his songs, I would go over to friends’ houses and listen to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks, but it took me a minute to warm up to Dylan. My first brushes with him were “Just Like a Woman,” “Idiot Wind.” You know … “How Does It Feel?” I remember thinking I’ll just sit over here and be uplifted with my Aretha Franklin records.

Eventually, I realized I did not have to love every single song. And when I heard Oh Mercy, I was just blown away and it became my favorite album for months and months.

You cover “Tryin’ to Get To Heaven” from Time Out of Mind and “Highwater (For Charley Patton)” from Love and Theft. I am curious about your take on these later masterpieces coming out thirty or forty years after Freewheeling Bob Dylan or Highway 61 Revisited?
It was so affirming that the work can be as strong as ever. Even someone like Dylan has gone through peaks and valleys in his career. In the 1980s, he released record after record that just confused his fans. But in the ’90s, he released Time Out of Mind, which is just a brilliant record. That was such a cool thing.

You got to perform “Tears of Rage” onstage with Dylan at one point. Was it difficult to be focused on your performance? What are your memories of that experience?
I remember it as a joyful moment for me, even though I was incredibly nervous. He took the first verse and then when I joined in on the chorus he got this big grin on his face when our voices mixed together. I remember thinking, “I made Bob Dylan smile!” It was wonderful and transcendent.

We also sang “Chimes Of Freedom” together for a TV show about the 1960s. For whatever reason, we were on the same microphone. Bob Dylan’s face was inches from mine. The thing that saved me from just collapsing was that he has this incredibly restless nature and intelligence and he changes his mind very quickly—you have to be so focused.

I did not have a lot of mental energy left over. I just had to focus on the work. Which was probably better for me. He pushed me—I had to bring it or I would have just dissolved.

Diablo is focused on covering the East Bay area—from Berkeley and Oakland to the Tri-Valley, where you’ll be performing at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. You have performed many times in this area—are there any special experiences that you have had out this way?
We recently did this show of Dylan’s material at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. That was our first time playing that particular room. Doing Bob Dylan material in Berkeley is sort of a match made in heaven.

I live in New York City, so I am so excited to visit the East Bay because of the physical natural beauty of the area. I love to get outdoors—to go on a hike or to be on a boat. You know, because you live there, but you are surrounded by an amazing natural beauty. It’s in the quality of the sunlight and the microclimates. You can be bathed in sunshine or be socked in a mysterious fog. I love that about the East Bay experience.