Over the Rhine Brings Us to Advent

Over the Rhine’s “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” recently made the LA Times’ list of the saddest Christmas songs ever, yet little else in all of December prepares us to celebrate Christ’s birth each year quite like OTR’s annual quasi-Christmas concert

By Tim & Robin Basselin

Last weekend my wife and I attended an Over the Rhine concert, and we wrote this review:

Every piece of furniture in our living room is currently piled in the center of the room because we’re painting.  It’s a mess, but it’s all part of preparing our house for Christmas guests.  Similar preparations have made a hectic mess of the rest of our lives as well:  decorating, teachers’ gifts, Christmas programs, family obligations, holiday parties, and, of course, presents to be found, bought, wrapped and given.  Like so many, our schedules (and it seems our souls) are franticly sprinting toward ‘the day’.

But on Saturday night we pushed the schedules and all the mess aside. We marked out just enough time to go to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and listen to a band that has been our favorite for the entirety of our 15 years together.  Like us, Over the Rhine (OTR) is a long lasting husband and wife partnership (they are a bit longer lasting than we).  Linford Detweiler plays piano and guitar and Karin Bergquist plays guitar and provides the lead vocals.   This time around, they were accompanied by well-known, Nashville bass player, Byron House, as well as the amazingly talented Nick Radina on percussion, mandolin, back-up vocals and everything else.

OTR comes to Chicago every year in early December as part of their quasi-Christmas tour.  We say it’s quasi-Christmas because they don’t hang any wreathes or string white lights on the stage, nor do they sing traditional Christmas lyrics or employ standard Christmas tunes.  The Christmas music they do include in the set is their own particular brand, full of longing, depth and even melancholy. In fact, OTR’s “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue” recently made the LA Times’ list of the saddest Christmas songs ever (which you can check out in the YouTube video below). But the audience on Saturday night did not mind at all.  The fans at these back-to-back, sold-out shows expected OTR’s mellow beauty that, in Karin’s words, “depicts the reality, not the ideal of the holiday.”

No opening act was necessary, and as OTR took the stage, there were no crazed fans nor any frenzied screaming.  Instead, there was an exuberant welcome, as though an old friend had returned home.  Then, the crowd sat back and waited in quiet expectation.  Linford picked up a guitar and led the quartet of players into their first song, “The Laugh of Recognition,” and the whole audience followed into the rich, deep beauty.  It only took a few chords, a mere 30 seconds, to calm our collective souls and prepare us for Karin’s haunting voice floating just above the music, just out of reach but close enough to make your soul long for its truth:

Come on boys… time to settle down
What’cha think you’ll gain from all this running round?
Come on boys… time to let it go
Everybody has a dream that they will never own.
Come on boys… time to let her down
You might be surprised how far she’ll get with her feet on the ground.
So, come on boys.

And with that opening verse, we released our inner, cluttered busyness and found ourselves grounded in the season of Advent, the season of longing and desire and recognition of our human need.

OTR played a particularly mellow set over the next two hours that included a few Christmas songs from their previous Christmas albums: The Darkest Night of the Year (how’s that title as an Advent reminder?) and Snow Angels (currently available for free or a donation).  As any dear friend would, OTR also shared with their audience the gift of a few old standards toward the end of the evening, including the concert perennial “All I Need is Everything.”

Much of the concert, though, was devoted to new songs that will fill two upcoming albums they plan to release in 2013.  One album will be dedicated to and heavily influenced by the pre-Civil War farm house where they live in Ohio and will be named simply Farm.  The other will be their third Christmas album, entitled Blood Oranges in the Show (Linford quipped “It’s not an Over the Rhine Christmas album until somebody dies.”)

The last song of the evening was one of our favorites:  “All My Favorite People Are Broken.”  It is, for us, the most quintessentially OTR song, summing up their 20 years of music making.  The song begins:

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Some prayers are better left unspoken
I just want to hold you and let the rest go

All my friends are part saint and part sinner
We lean on each other, try to rise above
We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners
We are all late bloomers when it comes to love

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward
You can stay right here, you don’t have to go

The song ended by fading into a long, slow instrumental version of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and our transition was complete.  In only a couple hours, our hearts were moved from restless and cluttered through a melancholy acceptance of our human vulnerability and into the everlasting arms of a savior, waiting to be born anew in our hearts.

After almost twenty songs, the 10 o’clock show started to wrap up around midnight.  Near the end, Linford noted the lateness of the hour and said “We should let these people go.  Many of them have to get up early for church in the morning.”  Karin looked up and responded, as many in the crowd were already thinking, “This is church.”  And it was.

Little else in all of December prepares us each year to celebrate Christ’s birth like OTR’s quasi-Christmas concert.  We find their music more suited to the season of Advent, and more soothing to our hurried souls, than all the “hosannas” and “glories in the highest” we encounter elsewhere.

So if you have a hard time wrapping your mind around the gift of a God who becomes a vulnerable human, or if you need to reflect for a bit on why you so desperately need that gift, we recommend a couple of hours with Over the Rhine to help clear your living room and prepare your heart for a rich celebration.

Originally posted at Under the Radar