In the music spotlight: Over the Rhine

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Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are Over the Rhine. | Provided Photo

The music of Over the Rhine is tricky to categorize, which may help explain why devotees claim it so personally as their own. The sultry smoke of Karin Bergquist’s voice balances against the meditative thrum of Linford Detweiler’s piano in a sophisticated melting pot of folk, gospel, pop, jazz and soul. The husband-and-wife team’s cinematic songs trace the pair’s long journey toward a home in rural Ohio. Heady lyrics with a sense of place follow a tradition more typically engaged by writers like Robert Frost, Wendell Berry and Flannery O’Connor. Melody and story combine to set a mood during concerts.

That mood tends to shift toward the year’s end. Expect the New Year’s Eve set at the Old Town School of Folk Music to include seasonally-themed fare, but it may be less a celebration of “joy to the world” than a communal effort to find “peace on earth” during trying times.

“We’ve recorded three Christmas albums during the last 25 years,” says Detweiler. “At some point while working on ‘Blood Oranges in the Snow,’ Karin said she felt we had stumbled onto a new genre of music called ‘reality Christmas.’ Our songs seem like a safe place to explore difficult matters, even during the holidays. It’s a joyful time of year, but it’s also a messy time of year for many people.

“Blood Oranges” isn’t just for Christmas. “Irving Berlin said, ‘If you want to be a songwriter, you have to write for every occasion,’” says Detweiler. “So, we’ve even written a song or two that feel pretty good on New Year’s Eve.” “New Year’s Song” toasts memory and connection. In a way, it subtly bumps the contemplative mood of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” to the right by a week on the calendar.

Detweiler assures there’s no direct connection, but happily admits his affection for the holiday staple. “I exaggerate a bit, but I say that everything I know about playing jazz piano I learned from that record. Decades before it was in every Starbucks, I had ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ on vinyl. I played it endlessly. That was probably my gateway drug to Bill Evans and John Coltrane. I’ve tipped my hat to Guaraldi a few times, including ‘Goodbye Charles’ on our ‘Snow Angels’ album.”

Forthcoming work includes a new studio album. “Many of the songs seem to have wounded angels in them, as if there’s some subconscious warfare happening and everyone has taken a few hits along the way,” says Detweiler.

The band’s characters may often be weary, and the band themselves may feel the years and miles. Nonetheless, Detweiler and Bergquist recognize the rejuvenating effect of their livelihood. “There’s something restorative about songs that I’m feeling like never before. For years, people have approached us with the idea that they’ve found our music to be healing somehow,” says Detweiler. I feel like this year, I’ve really been able to participate in that. I’m so grateful for music right now. It’s something that whispers, ‘All will be well; fear not.’”

* Over the Rhine, 8 p.m. Dec. 31, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, (773) 728-6000. Tickets $50; oldtownschool.org.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

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