Hallelujah in the city
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I have a "thing" for the popular singer Joan Osborne. The other night, the Mrs. and I caught Osborne live in concert at the Aladdin Theater here in town, and let me tell you: That "thing" is now bigger than ever.
This is one of those talents that's so magnificent, it's hard to describe. Who's the best female singer you ever heard belt out a song in concert? I'd have a hard time putting any voice ahead of Osborne. Ronstadt? Raitt? No way. Next to Joan they're positively vulnerable. Maybe Aretha in her prime -- maybe. I caught Ella once, late on, '78 -- she was something, even then. Janis would be in the same category, no doubt. But you can count still-active performers in this class on one hand. k.d. lang against Obsorne would probably make a good battle of the bands, but when they cranked up that hot last stanza, I'd be betting on Osborne.
And Joan's ear for good songs and musical settings! She stole the show in the Funk Brothers movie, she's fronted for what's left of the Dead, she's done the Grand Ole Opry thing -- her list of conquests gets longer by the year. And no wonder. The 90-minute Portland set showed her at the absolute top of her game. A voice as clear and pure and soulful as you're ever going to hear, and behind it a perfect sense of how to handle a lyric. Sinatra and Tony Bennett would be proud.
So why is she playing to 600 people in a venue like the Aladdin for a couple of thousand bucks at most, when she should be drawing Springsteen-sized crowds and raking in the millions? Beats me, people. Go figure. I'm just so glad she, and we, were there.
Now, I must confess that I came into the show pumped up to hear the '60s soul covers that made up most of Osborne's last two albums. And guess what -- she didn't do any of them. Most of the set was taken up by her new release, Little Wild One, which hearkens back to her earlier rock stuff, like the radio hit "One of Us," which she also sang (You know, "What if God was...?"). So was I disappointed? As it turns out, not in the least. The new album is darn good, and maybe it was just as well that I wasn't singing along in my head -- I got to concentrate on what she was doing.
She did pull a couple of chestnuts out of the soul albums -- the title song from "Breakfast in Bed" and the Dave Mason romp "Only You Know and I Know." The Dead's "Brokedown Palace" was also a sweet touch. But you know what? She could have been singing the Mattress World jingle, and it would have been great. That voice is an instrument that some day belongs in the Smithsonian -- kind of like Lou Rawls's (God rest him).
Joan, Joan, what more can we say? You are a treasure. We were all so lucky to have you on our warm little Portland stage. (And while we're at it, is the Aladdin a great venue, or what?)
One other item of note was the opening act, a singer-songwriter kid named Matt Morris. We expected exactly nothing from him, and we got a ton! Beautiful songs, great stage presence, the fire of a young solo performer -- whoa! Flashback to solo Bruce 1972. Who knows where it will lead? But this guy sure seems to be going places.
It was easy to see how Morris would wind up on a bill with Osborne -- he has a voice that can take a song to a much higher level in a big hurry. His originals soared, and when he actually pulled off John Lennon's "Help!" as a plaintive piano ballad, you knew he really had something going. The crowd ate out of his hand. Osborne brought him up later for a duet of her new song "Cathedrals," and it brought the audience to its feet. The vocals were stunning, and if I am not mistaken, in mid-song they switched from Morris low/Osborne high to vice versa. Impressive.
As you can tell, I'm a delirious fan, and from where I sat, there was simply too much going on in this show for a detached, coherent review. If you are reading this post and Osborne is about to come to your town, you positively need to drop everything and go -- it's that simple.