Since 1994, thousands of music fans have shared the Christmas spirit with Over the Rhine, the band formed by Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler in its namesake neighborhood in 1989. Their holiday show started at the Emery Theatre (before it closed), moved to the Taft Theatre for 18 consecutive years, and returned to OTR at Memorial Hall (after it reopened), where they played three sold-out shows each December from 2017 through 2019.
Unfortunately, the streak will stop in 2020, the year that can’t end soon enough. “The holiday shows have been a big part of the rhythm of our year, so it’s going to be different,” says Detweiler. “We’re hoping to do some kind of broadcast online, but we don’t have the details worked out. I personally haven’t let go of the hope that we could do some tiny gathering at the barn, but that might be a little bit of a dream.” [Editor’s note: OtR will in fact host a streaming holiday show here.]
The “barn” is the recording studio and performance space on the Clinton County farm where the couple lives. Bergquist and Detweiler, who have played just one show since February, a virtual performance with the Cincinnati Pops on July 4, have poured their quarantine energy into renovating the structure so it can host their Nowhere Else Festival next Memorial Day weekend after they cancelled it this year.
“Oh boy, we do have hope, although it might be all we have at this point,” Bergquist says about next year’s event. “But I can tell you the one silver lining about the pandemic is we’re home, and that means the barn has our full attention. It’s a very needy baby, that barn. Not only do we have a project manager, but it requires our attention. I don’t think [the renovation] would have happened if we had continued to tour.”
An earlier side trip in the ’90s helped launch the couple’s “little bit of a Cincinnati tradition,” as Detweiler calls it, saying their holiday fixation wasn’t part of a grand plan by two people who loved Christmas. “Both WVXU and [the now-defunct] WNKU invited us to stop by the radio stations and play music in December,” he says. “We hadn’t thought about making a Christmas record, nor thought about Christmas music. So we put our little spin on a couple of carols. Then we became interested in the question of whether there are any great Christmas songs that haven’t been written yet, anything that could exert some gravitational pull on a songwriter. Karin came up with this idea that we were starting to invent a new genre of music called ‘reality Christmas,’ which would acknowledge that the holidays can be complicated for many people. I think we found a little bit of space that feels unique to us.”
Those studio visits led to the December concerts and eventually to three holiday-themed albums: The Darkest Night of the Year (1996), Snow Angels (2006), and Blood Oranges in the Snow (2014). Each celebrates the season, but also recognizes that happiness isn’t the only emotion we share at this unique time.
“We know that tears of joy and tears of sorrow come from the same place in the brain,” says Bergquist. “I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for how the holidays register with us. There are moments of happiness and moments of deep sadness, especially if there is an empty place at the table. You’re trying to celebrate who you’re with, but you miss the one that’s gone. It’s complicated and it’s messy, but one thing about music is it can always find that space and be a balm and help bridge that place [between happiness and sadness].”
During a December unlike any previous, Over the Rhine remain a vessel for those seeking pleasure and solace during the holiday season. Even if they can’t take the stage.