Joan Osborne has traveled a rather circuitous path since her mid-’90s hit “One of Us” became the most ubiquitous piety-pop hit of the post-“Spirit in the Sky” era. Rather than try to follow that song, either topically or sonically, Osborne chose to go off on some mighty intriguing tangents — from Sufi devotional music to raw-boned blues — that derailed the major-label gravy train but didn’t dampen the restless spirit.
Osborne’s latest incarnation is that of a honky-tonk angel. She’s planning to hunker down in Nashville this summer to record what — from the tenor of the material previewed here — promises to be one part old-time country and one part Emmylou Harris-styled ethereality.
The first hour of the 90-minute perf was exclusively given over to material completely alien to the aud — a fact that Osborne acknowledged early on, cracking, “I’m not sure they should’ve made you guys pay for this.” That didn’t dampen the reaction, perhaps because the tunes were, true to country tradition, stark, simple and geared for maximum emotional impact.
Songs covered fairly typical territory — cheating, being cheated upon, running away from one’s past — but Osborne never waxed overly imitative or lapsed into parody. Perf’s most enticing moments were the most downbeat — or at least most meditative — as evidenced by a breathless opening salvo keyed by a version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.”
Despite not having sung any of the originals in public before, Osborne nailed virtually every nuance, particularly on the haunting “Kentucky,” slipping only on the infrequent attempts to be two-step friendly. She was ably abetted by a well-oiled backing quartet, consisting of a passel of veteran collaborators and longtime Big Apple alt-country presence Jon Graboff, who added plaintive counterpoint vocals and tangy steel guitar.
Osborne broke character a bit toward the end of the show, trotting out some covers that’ve long been part of her repertoire — notably “Only You Know and I Know” — and an old original or two. For the most part, however, she stuck to her battle plan. And while at first blush that blueprint might seem similar to the one Norah Jones drew up for the Little Willies, the wink-free stance taken here points to a much more long-term commitment.