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The Dead Summer Getaway Diaries

Published: 2003/07/08
by Dean Budnick

Joan Osborne on the Willie Nelson Picnic, 7/4

Here is Joan Osborne’s take on her gig with the Dead as well as the Willie Nelson Picnic show on July 4…
What was your initial reaction when you were approached about performing with the Dead on this tour?
It was such a complete out-of-the-blue surprise. I was never a big Dead Head and this wasn’t something I always dreamed of doing. It’s funny, I almost feel like I’m living out someone else’s fantasy. But I have to say I was really intrigued by it. I probably knew more of the Dead by reputation than anything else. I knew of the amazing career they’ve managed to carve out for themselves pretty much outside of the mainstream of the music business and the incredible precedent they’ve set as far being a live band that has this intense relationship with their fans. I knew more about that than I knew about the music itself. I guess based on that I said, "Sure, that’s something I just can’t pass up."
Which band member contacted you first?
It was Phil Lesh. I hooked up the gig through him and also through my booking agent Jonathan Levine who is the booking agent for Phil Lesh and Friends. Jonathan knew the Dead was going to reassemble and do a summer tour. He knew they might be looking for an additional musician to fill out the ensemble so he thought of me and suggested me to Phil. I know Bob had seen me but I’m sure sure if Phil had seen me or knew much about my music but they all thought it was a good idea or at least worth a try. So when they announced the tour on Valentine’s Day, they announced it with a show at the Warfield in San Francisco and I was part of that show. And things just went really well. I come out of a club scene in New York that was a blues and roots music scene so I’m used to the thinking-on-your-feet stuff that happens all the time with the Dead. I’m used to doing songs that stretch out and moments where you improvise, I think this has been doable because I come out of background like that.
During the Dead’s performance at Bonnaroo you emerged during Space to add some vocals. I know this surprised some of the band members. Was this something you had thought out a bit in advance?
No. I had assumed that during Drums or Space or whatever I would just stand off to the side but I just started hearing this faux opera stuff in my head. I started singing it backstage to myself kind of quietly and thought, "Oh this would be kind of cool." And I went up to Mickey who was offstage at that point and said, "Do you think the guys would mind if I went out and did some of this opera stuff?" And he was like, "No, you have to do it, you have to do it," and he basically shoved me out onto the stage and there I was.
I think that’s one of the challenge because not only is this kind of a roots-oriented band and not only do they have their blues and country and close-harmony singing which I love to do but there’s also this experimental side that happens during Space and the extended jams that allows me to use my voice as another instrument. I didn’t have to worry about words, about bringing any sort of literal meaning to a song but just to use my voice as another sound amidst the soundscape that they are creating. That’s really fun for me. There are no rules. If you hear it and you think it sounds good then you add it and that’s very freeing.
To what extent do you think you will bring this experience to bear when you return to touring?
Well that’s really interesting because I’ve been contemplating that myself. I have some headlining dates with my own band on the twelfth of July. We finish up here on the eleventh and the very next night I start doing ten dates worth of gigs with my own band. I’m kind of curious as to what I’m going to bring with me. Certainly I come from a background that is open to improvisation but it might be something I delve into further than I normally would.
As far as the writing goes, I’m highly inspired by having to go through this Grateful Dead boot camp and learn these songs, learning four or five new things often the day before I do them. It’s been pretty intense but it’s also been very inspiring to me as a writer and a lot of the songs that I love come from this sort of country and western vein that they’ve tapped into. So I think that combined with the fact that Willie Nelson has been out on tour with us and the fact that I did a six week stint opening for the Dixie Chicks has really inspired me to do some more country based-songwriting for my next record. So I think probably the repercussions of being out with the Dead won’t surface until next year with the writing process.
What was your musical highlight from the Willie Nelson picnic gig?
I’d have to say when Willie came and sat in with us which he did for several of the shows. We had expected him to come out and sing but he sort of shied away from the microphone and concentrated more on playing guitar. It was just amazing, the kind of stuff he would come up with on guitar. He has a very unique phrasing sensibility as a singer and a guitar player. Rob Baracco calls it beautifully broken, this unusual falling-down-the-stairs way of phrasing things that is just magical. So I was transfixed whenever he started playing guitar.
What was the oddest moment on stage?
That’s hard to pinpoint. This is an unusual gig. There are times when we go off into the space jams and I’m doing some sort of neo-Yoko Ono stuff into the mike and because no one has ever done any vocalizing here before, I can see people in the front rows and they don’t know whether they love it or hate it. Those are some interesting moments. I can’t say there’s been any oddest moment.
Who was the sweetest or most peculiar person you met yesterday and what they did to earn that title?
Sweetest…Let’s see Willie Nelson has a tour manager called Poodie [James "Poodie" Locke]. He’s someone who’s obviously been with Willie for decades and is this big Santa Claus-type figure and walks around distributing Willie Nelson guitars picks to all and sundry, and welcoming everyone and being friendly and encouraging. He was the one I went to when I wanted to ask if I could sit in with Willie during his set. I was too shy to go right up to Willie, so I decided I would talk to Poodie first and he hooked me up. So I would say he’s definitely the sweetest and maybe the oddest although that’s saying something with this whole group of people. I could certainly win the oddest on some nights.
What song that the band hasn’t performed recently do you most look forward to playing?
It’s something we haven’t done yet, "Days Between." We’re doing it in a different key than Jerry did but I think that’s the one we haven’t done yet that I am most looking forward to. It’s got a lot of depth to it. It’s one of those songs that digs into you and gets to places inside you that maybe you want to protect.

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