That there’s no better singer in rock was evidenced once again Saturday night (May 10) at City Winery, when Joan Osborne staged the first of her two Second Annual Joan Osborne Mother’s Day Benefit Concert shows.
Her job on Slim Harpo’s classic “Shake Your Hips,” which she included ion her 2012 blues/R&B Bring It on Home album, was the perfect example: For a lyric that ends with “now ain’t that easy,” Osborne made it easier than pie, letting her arms dangle and swing as naturally as she stretched out the line, gradually eased her pitch up note-by-note at the close, her band erupting from gentle opening to roaring climax, finishing for good with her dead-on approximation of a John Lee Hooker growl.
Osborne, who actually threw in a yodel at the end of an intense reworking of her hit “St. Teresa," long ago proved she can sing anything, from blues to R&B (her stellar performance of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary) to country (her 2006 Pretty Little Stranger album), The Grateful Dead (she toured with The Dead and included its “Brokedown Palace” on Pretty Little Stranger and in her City Winery set) and even studied with late Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
At City Winery she noted that “Work On Me” from new album Love and Hate was somewhat inspired lyrically by Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which she sang a few bars from a cappella and suggested that “maybe at 85 they’ll wheel me out and do standards all night.” This wasn’t soon enough for one audience member, who rightly knew she could do so now or any time prior to that pinnacle. But it was time to bring out her special guest Rosanne Cash—along with Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow, maybe the only artist who can hold her own with Osborne.
But Osborne was in awe of Cash, not only as an artist but as a mother, since Cash has raised four children to Osborne’s one—and motherhood, Osborne said at the outset, isn’t so much the Hallmark card as “a gritty and emotionally wrenching experience.”
Cash came out and performed “Modern Blue” from her new album masterpiece The River & the Thread, then a song Osborne had requested for a duet, Don Gibson’s hit “Sea of Heartbreak,” which she covered—with Bruce Springsteen--on her 2009 album The List. Here the pair were perfectly compatible--no dis to Springsteen.
“I kind of fell in love with you,” Cash said afterward. “I’m not nervous anymore,” replied Osborne.
Cash followed with a stunning version of “The World Unseen” from her 2006 album Black Cadillac, with Osborne now looking adorably bookish in glasses standing behind her, then coming forward to read the charts and sing background harmonies. Her guitarist Andrew Carillo acquitted himself beautifully in John Leventhal’s traditional lead guitar role opposite wife Cash’s acoustic guitar play.
“So you love Andrew now?” asked Osborne, understandably jealous.
“I love Andrew now,” said Cash, then turned to him: “Andrew? Would you like to sing ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ with me?”
Instead, they all sang The River & the Thread’s “50,000 Watts” tribute to historic Memphis black music radio station WDIA—Cash’s closer.
“I almost feel foolish for not making that the end of the show,” Osborne said, and true, some air was noticeably let out of the balloon. But she filled it back up with her new album’s “Up All Night" and her encore “One of Us,” after which she put her glasses back on and brought Cash out for a Mother’s Day grand finale, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Somehow, it was both funny and fitting.
Incidentally, Allison Moorer was Osborne's guest the following night, with proceeds from both shows benefiting the Somaly Mam Foundation for ending modern slavery.
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