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Published: 2011/09/09
by Tom Volk

Joan Osborne, The YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, Bay Shore, NY – 8/26

Joan earlier in August – photo by Ellis Jones

There can be many reasons behind one’s desire to take in a concert: Devotion to the artist, curiosity to see someone new, or maybe your girlfriend dragged you to the see her favorite folk singer or your fine with accommodating your husband’s jones for the latest iteration of whatever southern classic rock band that happens to be in town. Boil it all down to this though: escapism, the desire to get out of our own heads for an hour or two and simply be entertained.

In the week leading up to the recent Joan Osborne performance in Bay Shore, which is more or less right in the middle of the south shore of Long Island, the only thing on anyone’s mind who lived anywhere near the resurgent town was hurricane Irene. There was no escaping the specter of the looming storm. Not in conversation, not in the news, not in the home you so desperately needed to lock down, not at work where you were making contingency plans with your cohorts, not at the supermarket with eerily empty shelves where gallon jugs of water used to be, not even in the air itself, positively tropical and thick towards the end of the week, was there no reminder of the approaching storm. The building tension in the community was palpable in the week leading up to the show. I would die happy if I never heard the phrase “batten down the hatches” one more time and I’m sure I am not the only native who would cop to being wound up tighter than a snare drum all week.

In the hours before the show, my wife and I discussed whether it was even appropriate to be seeing a concert that night in the first place. “What about the house? Should we even be doing this?” It would have been an egregious mistake if we’d chose not to.

Osborne exuded a calmness and command of the stage to such a degree that she washed any thoughts of the approaching storm right from my consciousness for the almost two hours she gave us in the intimate confines of the Boulton Center. It was escapism at its best.

Accompanied by the versatile Keith Cotton, she ran through the gamut of her career’s diverse material. Her strongest original material still originates from 1995 debut Relish. Lost in the hype over the albums lone hit were strong cuts like “St. Theresa” and “Spiderweb.” Neither sounded dated in this stripped down setting, with Cotton alternating deftly between acoustic guitar and baby grand piano. The handful of new original songs Osborne has been working on may yet buck the trend of her best work coming from the mid nineties. They ranged from slow ballads sung in amazement of a sleeping child to funky, soul driven numbers accompanied by both Cotton and an I-Phone app titled, appropriately enough, the FunkBox. If nothing else Osborne definitely gets the award for the most unlikely artist to be using an I-Phone onstage.

The arc of Osborne’s career has seen her find just as much success as an interpreter of other peoples material as she had on the strength of her originals. Her cover choices were diverse and well received. Her interpretation of “Brokedown Palace” landed right in the wheelhouse of the crowd which was largely made up of aging Deadheads. The invocation of her days at the now defunct Wetlands didn’t hurt either prior to her soulful rendition of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” Her cover of the Funk Brothers “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” filled up the room as if a nine piece band was onstage, as much a tribute to the talents of Cotton, if not the taste of Osborne in curating other peoples material for her act.

I can even forgive her for brining Irene back into the conversation, thanking everyone for coming out to rather than evacuating a handful of times throughout the set. I can forgive her because she brought me back to the most visceral of reasons for seeing a concert in the first place: the need to inhabit someone else’s world for the short time they are onstage so that you may take short vacation from your own.

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