Tucked away in Manhattan’s Upper East Side is the Café Carlyle, a venue described by singer Joan Osborne as “intimate”. It is here, back in March 2016, that audiences first caught a glimpse of Osborne’s ninth studio album, Songs of Bob Dylan, as she and her creative collaborators – guitarist Jack Petruzzelli and keyboardist Keith Cotton – commenced the first of two two-week residencies at the storied locale, performing their interpretations of songs from Dylan’s extensive catalogue. As the residencies progressed, the trio experimented with the songs’ arrangements and sounds, feeling out what did and didn’t work.
Songs of Bob Dylan opens with a rendition of Tangled Up in Blue which remains very true to the original, despite shifting the musical focus from guitar to organ and replacing Dylan’s distinctive delivery with Osborne’s warm vocals. It is well executed but feels rather unimaginative. Luckily a measured, blues interpretation of Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 promptly follows, signalling that Osborne and her musical cohorts will be offering up more challenging takes on some of Dylan’s works. Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) bears the indelible imprint of the Manfred Mann version, competing with it in terms of catchiness.
Osborne’s renderings of Dylan’s songs are at their most compelling when she opts to add some grit and weight to the tracks. Highway 61 Revisited maintains the original’s vibe – without resorting to copping riffs from it – while imparting some additional darkness to the composition that is distantly reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s punk rendition of the tune, and the pushing of High Water in a roots-rock direction ensures the listener is instantly engaged. Augmentation from piano is the main addition to Masters of War, which otherwise remains an acoustic-guitar and vocal affair, although the utilization of palm-muting and Osborne’s understated vocal delivery underscores the song’s anger.
While a few of the tracks may arguably adhere too closely to the originals, bordering on imitation except for the vocals, the quality of Songs of Bob Dylan cannot be faulted. It is clear how Osborne has earned her reputation as a deft cover artist when not performing originals.