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By Liz Tracy
After 30 years of LSD-friendly rock 'n' roll, the Grateful Dead requires no introduction. But perhaps the Deadneeds one. After Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia embarked on his final journey in 1995, the rest of the band got together and continued as the Other Ones. The resulting tour highlighted the decade for the patchouli-scented public. The band broke out songs that had been retired decades before -- all-time classics such as "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven." Despite the technical prowess required by the oldie-but-goodie numbers, the Other Ones pulled it off.
Now, half a dozen years later, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead (minus keyboardist Vince Welnick, who has gone his own route since Garcia's death) -- guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart -- have decided to do it again. Although they have added several musicians to the lineup, the most unexpected newcomer is singer Joan Osborne. The pairing was the result of happenstance and networking.
"My booking agent at Monterrey Peninsula also has been the booking agent for Phil Lesh and Friends for the last two years," Osborne explains. "When he heard the Dead were going to get together and do a tour this year, he knew that they were going to need some additional musicians to augment the lineup, and he suggested me. I had done a festival gig with Bob Weir a few years before, so I think they knew enough about me to think it was worth giving it a try. We did a show this past Valentine's Day in San Francisco to announce the upcoming tour, and the show went really well. I had a great time, so they asked me to do the whole tour with them."
And so here she is, calling from Room 210 of a Best Western Hotel just before a sound check. Though many write her off as a one-hitter (1995's "One of Us" was her sole moment in the sun), Osborne hasn't allowed the lack of attention to derail her.
"I wrapped up with the Dixie Chicks on the 14th of June, started with the Dead on the 15th of June, and finished up my first leg with the Dead on Friday night of this past week," Osborne says, reciting the litany of gigs past. Joan Osborne knows no rest.
The constant touring may be the only thing Osborne has in common with the late great Garcia. Certainly, the Dead is an entirely different animal with her at the mic.
"You can't help but have people look at this in a different light," she says. "Jerry's not around anymore, and he was a central figure in the band. So no matter what you do, no matter who you get to fill that position, it's gonna be seen as a new chapter in the band's history."
Garcia had a strangely powerful, almost Jim Jones-like sway over his fan base, but his followers appear to have accepted Osborne as the latest incarnation -- which makes her breathe easier.
"It's probably easier for me to step into that situation being a female and not being anyone who's trying to imitate Jerry Garcia's singing style than it would be for somebody who is a guy and who maybe was influenced by his singing style," she admits. "The comparisons would be inevitable. But nobody's trying to compare me to anybody who's gone before, because it's not really appropriate. So it's a little easier for me. I'm really thankful to the audiences, because they've been really warm and welcoming to me. I guess they're just happy to see their band out again. I think anybody who helps make that a reality is all right with them. So I was really warmly received, and I'm happy about that."
Despite the warm fuzzies shared by Osborne and the fans -- some of whom have gone from arm's-length appreciation of her to some weird reverse Mrs. Robinson fascination -- the Dead gig is not all fun and frivolity for the singer. The song catalog runs high into the hundreds, and Osborne knew only a select amount of those tunes going in.
"I was not a Deadhead," she says, breaking the hearts of obsessive hippies across the country. "I owned a couple of the records and was familiar with the songs, but I wasn't somebody who lived in a VW bus, followed the band around, and sold grilled-cheese sandwiches in the parking lots. So this has been a really intense learning experience for me because the band has quite a few songs, and they change the set radically every night. Often I'll be presented with a set list early in the day and not know five or six of the songs on the set list. So I have to learn those during the day to perform them at night. It's kinda been like Grateful Dead boot camp."
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