Jerry Garcia was the only latter-day member of the Grateful Dead that Joan Osborne didn’t get to know. That goes without saying if you know that she was drafted to take over some of Garcia’s lead vocal duties in the 2003 reunion tour by the reconstituted group that by then was calling itself the Dead. But having slipped into his shoes, some, for that occasion makes her especially well-suited to weigh in on what made Garcia special, since her role was to maintain the magic of his songwriting and, to an extent, his vocal charisma while also showing just how ripe it was for a powerful woman’s reinterpretation.
Having absorbed Dead songs not just by the dozens by ultimately the hundreds, Osborne didn’t ditch all that material when she went back on her merry solo way, either. She subsequently drafted Dead songs into her own sets, having found that, for a live audience, “Sugaree” can be pure sugar.
Osborne’s immersion in Dead music and lore made her an ideal candidate for one of Variety‘s conversations commemorating the 25th anniversary of Garcia’s death — even as she celebrates her own quarter-century mark, as it was the summer of ’95 when her “Relish” album first boosted her into the national spotlight. (Her eleventh album, “Trouble and Strife,” comes out Sept. 18.)
VARIETY: We know you weren’t necessarily a major-league Deadhead in the ’90s, but do you recall at all where you were when you heard Garcia died?
OSBORNE: I don’t have one of those moments that are like “where were you when John Lennon was killed?” or anything like that regarding Jerry. I remember that I was on the road somewhere and heard about it from a fellow musician. It really wasn’t until much, much later that I came to appreciate him. I did see the Dead in the ‘90s. We were playing a show in Las Vegas and had some time between the soundcheck and the gig, so myself and the band went to the Grateful Dead show in this enormous football stadium, even though we couldn’t stay very long. I remember very clearly how the band was already on stage and we could hear them as we were going to our seats, and we were like, “Oh, they sound a little sloppy. They sound a little tired.” And then we got up there and every single person in the crowd was on their feet dancing. And I had never seen that before — you know, not one person in that entire stadium sitting down. Everyone was up dancing and clearly hypnotized. So I was like, “Wow, I better check myself! Because something is going on here, whether I understand it or not.” But it wasn’t until after Jerry passed away, and until I worked with the other four guys in the Grateful Dead and actually sang a lot of the songs that Jerry had sung, that I was able to fully appreciate him and what he was about.
At the time of that tour you did with the Dead in 2003, the New York Times did a story saying that you started out with a 50-song Dead repertoire that over the course of playing with them had grown to more than 200. Is that really accurate, that you learned that many?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the hallmarks of a Grateful Dead show is that they will play a different set from one night to the next, and then another completely different set the night after that. So what I was doing primarily during that time working with them was practicing and rehearsing and learning all day and all afternoon, and even between (songs). Like, if I went off-stage because there was a big jam going on and I knew I wasn’t going to have to sit in for another 15 or 20 minutes, I’d have headphones and my iPod there and I would go review my harmonies for the next two songs that were coming up in the set list. And yeah, it was a lot of work to be thrown into that. But that really was what gave me this appreciation for Jerry Garcia as a songwriter and as a composer.
First of all, as a songwriter and composer, a lot of the chord progressions that he was using were very interesting, and a lot of the melodies that he was structuring were not typical melodies for American roots music or cosmic Americana or whatever you want to say the Grateful Dead’s music is. His stuff was very unique. So I appreciated that as I was trying to learn it all very quickly, like, “Oh, wow. I thought this song was going to go this direction, but it’s taken this complete left turn and I never would have thought of that.” He had a really unique sensibility in that way.
And then, of course, I fell in love with his singing. I heard studio recordings and I heard a number of live recordings, to sort of take over his parts on some of the songs that he had sung. And it was really moving to hear what he was doing on those recordings. I certainly couldn’t ever be him or imitate him, because I have my own thing and I have to do what I do. But it was moving and just kind of dropped me in my tracks sometimes, the way he would use his instrument. Which, you know, I don’t think anybody would say that he had a quote-unquote “great voice.” It always seemed a little unsteady, and maybe like he wasn’t completely in command of it sometimes. He sounded like an old guy, even when he was a young guy. But he’s one of those guys who doesn’t have a great voice, but is a great singer. He was really possessed by a song. It almost was like he wasn’t in command of his voice, but the song was in command of him, and it was using him to express itself. He was completely immersed in the songs, especially the ballads, like “Stella Blue” or “Mountains of the Moon” or “Ripple” or “Brokedown Palace” — you know, those songs that just will break your heart when you sing them.
Did you develop favorites of his as you worked through so much of that repertoire?
Yeah. “Alabama Getaway” is a favorite of mine. Love “Stella Blue.” Love “Brokedown Palace.” Maybe the most fun that I had working with them was being able to sing “Sugaree” and just kind of wind it up in the way that I learned how to do from playing years in clubs in New York City. You learn how to wind a crowd up, and that was the perfect song to do that with, so that was always a blast for me. Those ones are real standouts in my mind, and I also really like “New Speedway Boogie,” too.
Clearly, whatever you weren’t getting when you first glimpsed the band in Las Vegas was something you learned and then some by the time you were on the road with them. Can you describe what that education was?
Yeah. Well, a (Dead) show of course was more than just a show where an audience comes to hear music. It was an excuse for a particular community to come together and to see each other again, and to experience the band in communion, in this sort of ritual that they all were missing so badly. Of course I joined the group for that tour after Garcia had passed away, so people were hungering to hear those songs again and to have that experience of coming together as that particular community. It was like everyone was part of the family. Music was a big part of it, but there were also other parts of it that were going on in the audience, and that was considered just as important and just as meaningful, because it was about this community coming together.
You still do some of those songs on occasion, and I saw that in 2013, you did a whole livestream show consisting of taking people’s requests for Dead songs. So you’ve continued to have a fondness for that material.
Well, I am a singer, so I want to sing great songs, and they have a lot of great songs. You know, a lot of songwriters, take the Beatles — of course they have amazing, incredible songs, but they were only active for seven years. Someone like the Dead or Bob Dylan, they continued to write songs and create new music for decades, so you have this very rich vein to mine. And it’s just a fun, joyful exercise as a singer to dive into the material like that.
Do you have some people show up at your shows who maybe became a fan of yours because you were with the Dead, and there’s some residual affection from that?
Yeah, a little bit, I think. It’s nice to see the tie dye in the crowd, for sure. [Laughs.]
Even though obviously you didn’t know him, do you have any sense of what kind of a guy Jerry was just from everything you learned about him or even just from taking in the music as much as you did?
When I worked with them, a lot of the road crew was the same as the road crew that had worked with the band when Jerry was still alive. So I heard a lot of stories about him backstage. And there was one in particular that really stuck with me. One of the guys was saying that although Garcia was not anybody that you would picture as a ladies’ man — he was kind of unkempt and didn’t shower a lot, and he was not a handsome guy — women were drawn to him, because he had this magnetic charisma about him. He was so fun to be with, and so interesting, and kind of a genius. So he was this sort of unlikely chick magnet. [Laughs.] That always stuck with me.