The day after the presidential election, I, along with 30,000 other (perhaps similarly stunned and heartsick) souls downloaded Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book “Hope In the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.” The prescient tome details the history of activist victories against and amidst the worst of odds, and has been serving as a bit of candle to some of us as we apprise the bewildering political landscape and often fine line between hope and hopelessness. Exactly a month later, how to stay hopeful in the dark remained the call as another pair of candle-bearers arrived, fortuitously, in the form of the Ohio-based Over the Rhine.
Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are masters of finding the light in winter. The pair has released three holiday-themed CDs — The Darkest Night of the Year, Snow Angels and Blood Oranges in the Snow — a bit of a cottage industry within the works they’ve created, and a huge relief to music lovers who appreciate Christmas but not so much the sugary standards piping throughout most public speakers in December.
“We call it reality Christmas,” noted Detweiler of OtR’s particular brand of holiday music, which accommodates the season’s actuality rather than its hard sell: “the empty chair at the table,” the cold season, and the warmth to be found with loved ones.
The border crossing
Was moving slow
With all this weather
It’s been touch and go
But we keep driving
We’re not afraid
The snow in our headlights
Confetti in a parade
Cherry-picking songs from their Christmas-themed CDs, as well as their many other studio efforts, including 2013’s sublime Meet Me at the Edge of the World, OtR’s Berkeley set contained angels (“White Horses”) and bloody ground (“Sacred Ground” which they dedicated to Standing Rock), laughing through tears (“Born”) and drinking red wine with drawn curtains (“All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue"). Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” fit seamlessly amid their oeuvre.
In a page that could have been taken from Solnit’s book, Bergquist's new song “Making Pictures” was a plaintive ode to figuring things out in the the dark.
Joined by Brad Meinerding on mandolin, guitar, harmonica and backing vocals, OtR has an uncanny ability to evoke a parlor, a church and a nightclub all at once. With Detweiler strumming his guitar or playing the piano, Bergquist singing in hushed whispers and wails, and Meinerding laying back or taking extended solos, their music is a combination of torch and folk, hymnal and rock... and all adds up to something, blessedly, luminous.