The trouble with bar bands is that they all sound like bar bands -- they hear a song, they play the song, always in an instantly recognizable manner. That's their job, of course, but ultimately "bar band" becomes a stylistic straitjacket.
The other constraint on the careers of those seeking fame and fortune by playing covers, standards, oldies and blues is the music industry's overweening confidence in its A&R people. Stars, it's assumed, just don't come out of nowhere after age 30 (or maybe 20, in this era of the Buzz Clip and 120 Minutes). The music industry's approach is to wonder why, if the over-30 artist is so talented, he or she wasn't spotted earlier.
Every once in a while, though, someone manages to shuffle off the bar-band coil, break out of the mostly regionalized bar-band circuit and develop into a truly original artist. The latest to cross the barrier is Joan Osborne, presently on a mini-tour in support of her sweet and sexy major-label debut, Relish, a tour that this summer will give way to being Melissa Etheridge's opening act. The smart money says that Osborne, with a voice that sounds like a cross between a young Aretha Franklin and a living Janis Joplin, will blow Etheridge off the stage.
For more than a decade, Osborne has been loosing her soulful vocals in blues bars and other small venues along the East Coast. Born in Anchorage, Kentucky, an Ohio River town hard by Louisville, she started her singing career when, as a student at New York University, she stepped up to sing at an open mike night. The band invited her back the next week, and before long she was performing full-time. Singing mostly covers, she gradually attracted a dedicated claque, playing at the same venues that spawned the Spin Doctors and neo-Grateful Dead acts such as Blues Traveler and Phish.
To a large extent, though, Osborne's bar bands held her back, allowing her few chances to stretch stylistically. Soul Show, her 1992 live album, showcased her tremendous voice. On the CD, Osborne's vocals build and build until she finally cuts loose with a full-throated wail. "Son of a Preacher Man," the quintessential Osborne performance, whether live or on the disc, is found on Soul Show, and it's the sexiest version of that tune you'll ever hear.
Shortly after Soul Show's release, Osborne apparently felt more confident and began expanding her musical horizons, making some lineup changes in her band and, it seems, listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart. The title tune of her second release, the EP Blue Million Miles, was a Beefheart original, and her live shows started showcasing some more experimental material.
After going into the studio with the producer and session players who helped create Cyndi Lauper's first album, Osborne emerged with her breakthrough, Relish. The CD's songs are well crafted and imaginative, the point of view female but not feminist, the topics sometimes surreal but never without making discernible their soul and blues roots. On one cut titled "Spiderweb," for example, Osborne imagines meeting a Ray Charles who's regained his eyesight but been struck mute. Some of the tunes are out-and-out rockers, such as the Stonesy "Right Hand Man" and the Leon Russell/Joe Cocker-inflected "Ladder."
What links these songs is that they all sound like they'd be great live, which is what you'd expect from someone who honed her skills in sweaty bars instead of sterile studios. From all reports, Osborne's maturation as a songwriter hasn't lessened her dedication to dynamite live shows. You might want to catch her before she gets swallowed up by the arenas.
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Joan Osborne plays at 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 6 at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $9. For info, call 869-8427.
Charlie Sexton -- Though only in his mid-20s, Charlie Sexton has already gone through at least three distinct career phases: guitar slinging glitter rocker, blues disciple and, now, roots rocker. This most recent incarnation feels like the most sincere. Backed by four other musicians, Sexton has given up guitar pyrotechnics in favor of a more controlled approach and a dependence on his husky baritone. Don't laugh, it worked for Clapton. And the reviews as Sexton has set out across the country to promote his latest CD have been glowing. At Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, Friday, June 2. 862-3838. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Ted Nugent -- A short while back, we received news of what sounded like the most improbable, and most interesting, double bill in long-term memory: Vince Gill of the hat crowd would be playing with Ted Nugent. It was fascinating to conjecture what would happen as the Gill and Nugent fans sat down next to each other, and to wonder whether the Motor City Madman would end up pulling out his bow and trying a little William Tell action with Mr. Gill. Alas, the rumor was false; Nugent will be playing with Bad Company, a more compatible pairing, to be sure, but nowhere near as enchanting in a performance art way. Still, when it comes to performance, if not art, Nugent is in a category all his own. He's the original headbanger, a proponent of loudness over all else and an unashamedly retrograde champion of man as hairy-chested warrior. If the liberal wimps object to his carnal and carnivorous ways, they can, as he tells them on his latest CD, Spirit of the Wild, "kiss my ass." Odd thing is, Nugent's been around so long now that he's almost become charming in his Neanderthal way. At the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands, Wednesday, June 7. 629-3700. (