BY STEVEN ROSEN
With Blood Oranges in the Snow, Over the Rhine treats the Christmas album as a major artistic statement that questions the holiday’s celebratory nature as much as it acknowledges it.
The married duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, augmented by other musicians, will perform songs from the new album Saturday at Taft Theatre. Lily & Madeleine will open. This will be Over the Rhine’s 16th straight holiday show at the Taft, but this one’s a little different because of the new album. (They have recorded two previous Christmas records.) Longtime Cincinnati residents, they now live on Nowhere Farm in rural Highland County.
Typical of Over the Rhine, this new album has acoustic-oriented material with gently powerful melodies and sensitively introspective lead vocals, most but not all by Bergquist. But Blood Oranges can’t just be described as a typical Christmas album.
Not when the songs include the likes of Detweiler’s “My Father’s Body” (about Christmas Eve being the right time to visit his father’s grave) and “First Snowfall” (which begins with a description of “ragged and rusty” Christmas decorations and later references “two stray dogs runnin’ in Newport, Ky.”) The album also has a cover of Kim Taylor’s “Snowbirds,” about escaping winter, and Merle Haggard’s aching tale of working-class hardship, “If We Make It Through December.” The surface of Blood Oranges reflects great beauty, but melancholy ripples and rumbles underneath.
“Karin at one point while we were making this leaned over to me and said, ‘I think we’ve stumbled onto a new kind of music called Reality Christmas,’” Detweiler said, by phone from Cleveland before a recent show there.
“I think one aspect of that would be that losing a loved one or losing a job or any of these difficulties we deal with all year round doesn’t really go away during the holidays.
“And those of us who grew up with the Christmas story were taught that something amazingly redemptive happened with the birth of Jesus. Angels were singing, there was good news, peace was coming to earth, this tiny child was somehow going to break the cycle of violence to which we’re so addicted.
“When we kind of look at that ancient dream and the reality of where we are today, the distance between the two can seem like a wound too deep to heal, too wide to bridge,” he continued.
“I think a lot of our songs live in that distance, that tension between the two. Who doesn’t want to believe peace can come to earth and these wrongs put right and forgiveness would trump retaliation? But we’re not there.”
Still, Christmas does bring hope – if not for religious reasons, then because of the weather. December brings the possibility of a purifying snowfall, which occurs in the song “First Snowfall” when the flakes fall on a weary, downtrodden city. A city like Cincinnati.
“I lived right on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine for 10 years, right across the street from where Kaldi’s (coffee house) eventually started,” Detweiler recalled. “It could get a little dingy down there in December back in the day – trash blowing around in the street, lots of characters hanging out drinking out of brown paper bags.
“It seemed like there were a number of years when I lived in this little third-story apartment where the first big snowfall of the year was pretty significant and it seemed like it always started after dark. So it would come down and you’d see each one of the streetlights become its own snow globe. All of a sudden the city started going quiet and it always felt like something a little sacred was happening. To me, it always felt like a fresh start.”
The song’s reference to stray dogs in Newport comes from a the photograph that Michael Wilson — the Cincinnatian whose work has been featured on Over the Rhine album covers — took for the Replacements’ 1990 All Shook Down.
“That was one of the first Michael Wilson photographs I saw in his basement when I met him and was starting this band,” Detweiler said. “That seemed to embody something important to us. We’ve been haunted by that image for years and I was glad to finally get it into a song.”
After a quarter century as a musical act (sometimes with additional members), big changes are looming for Over the Rhine in 2015. “No way we can repeat those 25 years of touring and recording moving forward. So I think we need to reinvent or perish,” Detweiler said. “We’ve decided we need a creative home base. We are restoring a 140-year-old barn on another farm nearby. Nowhere Else will be second property.”
Somewhat modeled on what the late Levon Helm did in Woodstock by using a barn on his property for a series of Midnight Ramble concerts with guest musicians, Detweiler plans to convert that barn into a 150-200-seat concert/recording venue and with 12-15 shows per year featuring the duo and invited guests. Near to Nowhere Farm, the Nowhere Else property is in Clinton County.
“We’ll selectively begin introducing some of the amazing people we’ve met over the years, like Jack Henderson or Kim Taylor or Joe Henry or someone like Buddy Miller,” Detweiler said.
Work is set to get underway soon and be finished by the end of May. On May 24 and 25, Over the Rhine is staging special barn-raising concerts for fans – tickets are $100 per person with information available at www.overtherhine.com. Over the Rhine has previously turned to fans to fund its last three albums, The Long Surrender, Meet Me at the Edge of the World and Blood Oranges.
“Our fans have stepped forward and together we have learned we can make significant projects together,” Detweiler said. “We’re going to take this to the next level and really collaborate on building this barn together.
“We’ll see if we’re crazy. If it ends up not working at all, we’ll be selling two farms and moving back to the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. But we might not be able to afford that now.”