Music Scene: Joan Osborne goes her own way

Jay N. Miller

Leave it to Joan Osborne to take a bold step forward while also taking a half-step back. 

Osborne’s latest album, ``Little Wild One,'' might be her most riveting work. It might also be her most popular since 1995’s mega-platinum ``Relish'' vaulted her to stardom.

Osborne performs tonight at the Somerville Theatre. (All ages, with Matt Morris opening at 7:30 p.m., and all tickets are $28.)

No one in recent years has embodied that special confluence of the spiritual and sensual that characterizes the best soul music as well as Osborne. If her singular rock ’n’ soul blend carried a hefty kick beyond most Motown efforts, it was also never far removed from gospel, and her lyrics attracted plenty of alternative rock fans, too.

But after her sophomore album exploded upon the charts in 1995-96 and garnered six Grammy nominations, Osborne grew weary and withdrew to follow her muse in other directions. She almost willfully scaled back to cult status, while releasing a string of albums no less compelling, just less mainstream. Soul covers, an album of country music, and various stints singing with other artists.

"Little Wild One''  reunites her with Eric Bazilian, Rick Chertoff and Rob Hyman, the production team from her breakthrough ``Relish.'' When not helming studio efforts like this, that trio can most often be found performing with their own excellent folk ’n’ soul rock band, the Hooters. But going back to the team that made her best-selling album was not exactly a conscious decision.

"This was not premeditated at all,'' Osborne said. "I had always kept in touch with those guys. I’d always liked the sound we had on ‘Relish’ and, beyond that, we had a really good time creating that record.''

Having lived in New York City for many years, Osborne said she was deeply affected by Sept. 11. She volunteered for the Red Cross immediately afterward, and saw firsthand some of the traumatic after-effects. The new CD carries a sort of ineffable theme of the vitality of the city, as well as more than a passing nod to the wonder of having her own child now, a daughter born in 2004.

"After living here for 20 years I had taken it for granted. I think that seeing the city go through all that let me recapture the feelings I had when I first moved here,'' said Osborne, who hails from Kentucky.

"It’s really an incredible sort of living museum of human existence,'' said Osborne, describing New York. "For an artist and a writer it’s a great place to be, where you can always pick up pieces of conversations, or witness all variety of interactions.''

Osborne said her daughter has also given her a new perspective and the title cut on the new CD is in fact inspired by her, but it also works as a love song. That tune and others Osborne wrote or co-wrote, like ``Hallelujah in the City,'' ``Light of This World,'' and ``Bury Me on the Battery,'' show the intangible spiritual content that made ``Relish'' so intriguing. And the album’s lone cover, of Jump Little Children’s ``Cathedrals,'' continues that theme even as it salutes the majesty of the city.

Osborne said a love of the poet Walt Whitman was particularly inspiring.

"After I unearthed some of the work he did while living in New York City, his writing about those magical moments that unfold in front of you. He reminded me of those times you can walk around the city and just see all that it can be. Now, obviously, with a child, you can’t do that all the time, and we all have obligations and get bogged down in everyday life. But this record was a way to remind myself to see this great parade of humanity, all striving for their hopes and dreams."

Osborne said she wishes she was a writer like Bruce Springsteen, ``who could see and feel events like 9/11, process them, and turn them into an album that means a lot in nine months.''

 And her time singing with a panoply of musical immortals has also been equal parts learning experience and pure fun.

"I’m really grateful I’ve been welcomed into all these musical worlds, from the Grateful Dead to Motown, to singing with Brian Wilson,'' Osborne said. ``They are all American legends.''

"The Dead probably had the biggest impact on me as a writer, because I came into that not being, previously, a big fan,'' Osborne said. ``I had to learn literally hundreds of songs for that tour. They change sets night after night, so it was like boot camp for me. But I found they had many wonderful songs, and having to absorb them like that gave me an appreciation for their work. It helped me as a writer.''

FACES IN THE CROWD: That was TBS baseball commentator Ron Darling in his suit and tie at Madonna’s concert  Wednesday at the TD Banknorth Garden; with an off-day between games in the ALCS, the former Met was just another Madge fan in the beer line when we saw him. ... One fan you just knew would be at last Saturday’s Experience Hendrix show at the Orpheum was WATD DJ Peter Black, whose nightly ``Wide World of Blues'' features a ``Midnight Lightning'' blast of Jimi’s music.

JARRETT TRIO’S 25TH: One of the most inventive groups in jazz history, the Keith Jarrett Trio, celebrates its 25th anniversary Sunday night with a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. Pianist Jarrett has played in many formats, but never sounded better than with his classic cohorts, bassist Gary Peacock and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.

LATE DATES: Tonight Bagful of Blues warms up Joe’s American Pub in Hanover. ... Big week for Dante’s at Firefly’s in Quincy, with the band Red Square debuting Saturday night, and Ernie and the Automatics coming in Tuesday night.

Jay N. Miller covers popular music  on the South Shore and in the Boston  area. If you have information or ideas  for Jay about the local music scene,  bookings, recordings, artists, etc., send  it to him by e-mail to  Attn: Music Scene  in the subject line.