Powerhouse Joan Osborne Plays Sold-Out Landmark Show

Joan Osborne at Landmark on Main St 2012Despite the icy weather on Saturday, and a championship football game on Sunday, music lovers turned out in droves for two remarkable concerts at this weekend. Saturday night’s show by the ironically named Stew and the Negro Problem was possibly one of the strangest and most interesting performances seen thus far at this venue. The band is primarily made up of Stew (who uses just the single name) and his musical collaborator (and former romantic partner) Heidi Rodewold, who bears a passing resemblance to The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde but possesses a more angelic voice. The pair was joined by a terrific duet of horn players, a drummer, and keyboard player.

A bit of background – Stew and the Negro Problem are most well known for its Tony award winning play, “Passing Strange,” which was later made into a film by Spike Lee. Stew and Rodewold are extremely talented and versatile songwriters who blend wildly witty lyrics with unexpected musical twists.

The band played several songs from its new (released this week) CD, titled “Making It.” Standouts included songs that examined – and seemed to poke at the wounds of – the former couple’s relationship. For example, the song “Curse” where Stew sings “She made an exit when she needed to, there’s so much there to read into, she left you when you needed her most. And then you watch your love turn into a ghost.” Or the song “Love is a Cult” where Rodewald sings “Love is a great gig, but the pay is crap.”  Just the title of the aptly named “Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth” seems to describe the emotional tension that still exists between Stew and Rodewold. Yet there were also laugh-out-loud moments – such as Stew’s tongue-in-cheek “Black Men Ski,” allegedly written after he was mistakenly taken for Denzel Washington while in Aspen.

Aside from the very literate lyrics, the music itself was also, at times, simply astounding. Although the band seemed to be picking its set list as it went along, the sound was tight and the musicians were top-notch, covering the many genres that seemed to be incorporated in the songs. Particularly impressive was sax player Mike McGinnis, who also played clarinet and did a beautiful and inspired flute solo during the song “Love is a Cult.” The encore was one of the oddest things I’d ever heard – a reggae-like tune that somehow managed to include a minor version of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.” All in all, this was a show that drew from me both spontaneous laughter and jaw-dropping amazement… and what more could you ask for on an icy evening in Port Washington?

On Sunday, the powerhouse known as Joan Osborne returned to Landmark’s stage for the third sold-out time – this time with just a keyboard player, Keith Cotton, rather than a full band. This made for a more intimate night of music for which no one minded missing the Giants game. Osborne made up for the lack of musicians by coming up with innovative, stripped-down arrangements of her songs, including “St. Teresa” where she used her guitar as a bass and a drum. Osborne has one of the best voices in the business – rich, powerful and emotive – and she knows how to use it.

During the course of the evening, she treated the audience to some unexpected covers, including Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” and a terrific (and surprising) cover of Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know.” Osborne is a master at paying homage to the originator of the song, while simultaneously making it her own. She did a touching tribute to the recently departed Etta James by performing her song “I’d Rather Go Blind,” with incredible soulfulness and depth of feeling. Particularly enjoyable was her funky rendition of The Band’s “The Weight,” which used an iPhone app to create a funk drum line. The song turned into an audience participation number as she had everyone sing with her.

One of the things I most appreciate about Osborne is her willingness to reach back into her catalogue of music and play old hits. Sure, she must get a little tired of playing “One of Us,” night after night, but the audience never tires of hearing it, or “St. Teresa,” or “Spider Web” – all of which she performed at Landmark. Keith Cotton, her keyboard player, did most of the musical heavy lifting, and made it look effortless. Osborne never disappoints, and seems to handle almost every genre, from pop to soul to country to blues. Hopefully she will return to Landmark again in the near future.

Upcoming musical performances at Landmark on Main Street include a free master class with American Idol’s Justin Guarini on Wednesday, and a concert by Dancing with the Stars’ Mark Ballas and his band on Friday.

Originally posted at Patch Port Washington