She had a pretty big rock ‘n' roll hit ("One of Us") back in 1995, but these days Joan Osborne is known as one of the most reliably smoky rhythm 'n' blues singers in the business.
She sang Motown classics with the Funk Brothers in the film (and stage show) Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and nine years ago spent more than a summer as co-lead vocalist in The Dead, alongside all the surviving alumni of the Grateful Dead. She then toured with the Dead's Phil Lesh, in his tie-dyed gypsy caravan of "Friends."
Osborne's newly-released Bring it On Home is a collection of powerful blues/rock covers, including "Game of Love," "Shake Your Hips" and "Shoorah! Shoorah!" She and her band have just completed the first round of tour dates in support of the record, her third such visit to the R&B well.
She's now the "chick singer" in the band Trigger Hippy, a formerly all-boys club consisting of Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, singer/songwriters Jackie Green and Will Kimbrough, with bassist Nick Govrik.
(Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, who co-founded the band with Gorman during the Crowes' downtime, recently left the project.)
This week, Trigger Hippy - with Joan Osborne on lead vocals - has a date at Live Wire Music Hall.
You turned up singing with the Dead, and now you're in another band of vagabond hippies. But you have a new Joan record out at the same time, and your own band. So why do you do this?
Joan Osborne: I really enjoy doing my own thing. I love writing songs and that's a great thing. But I also have so many opportunities to collaborate with other people, and that's part of the fun of doing music, stepping outside of your own world and combining with other people. That's one of the things I loved about being part of the music scene in New York City when I was first coming up. You'd be able to sit in with other bands. It's one of the fun things about it.
But once you start going out on your own, and doing your own tours and stuff, there's less opportunity for that. So I felt like doing the thing with the Dead, and also the thing with Trigger Hippy, it's just a way to keep things fresh and loose. And it's just fun.
I find that doing my own thing and outside projects are complementary. One thing gives energy to the other.
So was Gorman a friend of yours? How'd you get involved?
Joan Osborne: Gorman and I had met each other over the years. I've shared bills with the Black Crowes and been at the same festivals and stuff over the years. My booking agent is the same guy that books the Black Crowes when they go out, and I had told him I was interested in looking for some side projects. He told me that Steve Gorman and Audley Freed had started this project called Trigger Hippy. At the time, Jimmy Herring was involved in it as well, and I of course knew Jimmy from working with the Dead. It just sounded like a fun thing to do. So we got to talking about it, I went down to Nashville, and it just seemed like a really nice chemistry of people. Everybody was really cool and laid-back about it.
And for me, it was fun to be part of a band instead of being a solo artist and having to sort of be the prime mover behind everything. Everybody's coming up with songs, and taking equal responsibility for it. You share the fun and you also share the stuff that's not so much fun.
It's not like we're re-inventing the wheel or anything, it's really very meat and potatoes rock/soul music. But I just think these guys are all really talented. And we come to it with the right spirit - we're in it to make people feel good, you know?
Let's go close up, for the folks at home, on what Trigger Hippy plays? Is it like the Crowes - that swaggery, British-style blues/rock?
Joan Osborne: It definitely has an element of that. But Jackie Green is a huge Motown fan, and he brings an element of that kind of style. So he's a big treat for people like that, and for soul music.
It's got a real Southern tinge to it. It has that British blues/rock aspect, but it's filtered through a very Southern sensibility.
Bring it on Home is your third album of soul and blues covers. How do you go about choosing the tunes?
Joan Osborne: The original versions of these songs, people have attachments to. So you don't want to just try to copy those original versions. You can't out-Muddy Waters what Muddy Waters does. You can't outdo Ike & Tina at what they do. You have to try to find the place where what you have intersects with the song, and make something unique with it.
So we got a big list together, everybody's wish list, mine, the label's, the guys in the band, my co-producer, and then we just started running through them. And I had some ideas about different arrangements that I wanted to try. Sometimes the ideas were spot-on, other times you work a song again and again and again, and the way you thought it was gonna be doesn't pan out. But through playing it, and through living with it a little bit, something else appears. And that's the way to present the song in a unique and fresh way.
And then other times you try something, and no matter what you do it just doesn't work! So you leave it alone. There was a Nina Simone tune that we tried to do every which way. And it was "All right, Nina. You did this to death. There's nobody going to touch you on this."
With your band, you play in theaters. As part of Trigger Hippy, you're playing roadhouses, juke joints - and a relatively tiny club in Savannah. Do you like that change - is it like "I'm keeping it real"?
Joan Osborne: If I like the music, then I like that. I won't lie, some of these clubs are toilets, and I don't know that I'm ever going to go back there again.
But if you get a really great little club that sounds good, and the audience is in there and they're into it, you forget about all that stuff after the first song starts. It becomes really about the music. And then you realize that this little toilet is happenin,' you know? And there's a reason people are still coming there.
I didn't start out in music with the goal of becoming rich and famous, and was all focused towards that. I just wanted to do music. And if it was in a little club, or if there were 10 people in the audience or whatever, that was real to me as well. And sometimes those gigs can be more real than playing in front of 100,000 people.
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. April 20
Tickets: $10 advance, $15 at the door