You may have thought you’d heard your fill of Bob Dylan covers…turns out you haven’t.
For many, Joan Osborne is a one-hit wonder from the 1990’s thanks to her song One Of Us. But, as this album amply demonstrates, along with accumulating a nice little catalogue of her own work over the past twenty years, Osborne has developed into a first-rate interpreter.
This album comes as the logical offshoot of her recent concert series, Joan Osborne Sings The Songs Of Bob Dylan that took place in New York City in March of 2016 and 2017. During those shows, Joan was accompanied by guitarist Jack Petruzzelli and keyboard player Keith Cotton. Both musicians make key contributions here along with co-producing the album.
But first, the key to any Dylan collection is the song selection, and Osborne’s choices are impeccable. There are three tunes from Blood On The Tracks along with songs that originate from all other Dylan eras….from the 1960s (Masters Of War, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere) to the 1980s (Dark Eyes, Ring Them Bells) and beyond (Trying To Get To Heaven, High Water).
The tricky thing about covering Dylan is to avoid repeating previous versions while remaining true to the spirit of the song, and then leaving your own personal stamp on the song.
Tangled Up In Blue kicks off the set and it shows immediately why Joan Osborne is perfect for this project. The instrumentation doesn’t stray far from the original, but Osborne’s vocal approach is to add a sultriness to the song, her Kentucky roots showing as she sings, “Early one morning the sun was shiiiii-ning”.
It’s the small, subtle touches that Osborne and her band add, that make this album such a joy.
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (aka Everyone Must Get Stoned) is probably the most surprising revelation. Instead of the ramshackle party atmosphere Dylan created on Blonde On Blonde, Osborne’s version is downright spooky, with ominous backing vocals, and sparse, single piano notes punctuating the arrangement.
Her Highway 61 Revisited is equally compelling, with its dense intensity and swirling guitar.
The one misstep on the album is Dark Eyes…not because Osborne sings it poorly, but because her childlike voice she uses on the track sounds too much like Patti Smith’s version.
Much better is her version of Buckets Of Rain. Accompanied by just piano and guitar, Joan leaves Bette Midler’s version of the tune in the dust.
The third Blood On The Tracks Tune here is You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and I swear it’s better than Dylan’s own. Osborne really gets inside the lyric, bringing out the inherent heartbreak that Dylan only hinted at.
Two other songs, High Water (For Charley Patton) and Masters Of War, both written years ago by Dylan, prove to be chillingly prescient thanks to current events and serve to make the case that these songs still need to be heard.
Throughout the record, Osborne is supported by a band that knows when to play and when to lay low. Petruzzelli’s guitar breaks during Spanish Harlem Incident and Quinn The Eskimo sounded like a young and hungry Robbie Robertson, while Cotton’s piano on Buckets Of Rain and album closer Trying To Get To Heaven adds real gravitas to the production.
You may think you’ve heard enough different versions of Dylan tunes by enough different artists, but if you haven’t heard Joan Osborne’s take on The Bard, then your musical life is incomplete.