A couple of years ago, someone I’ve never met tweeted about a band I hadn’t heard of. Curious, I flicked to YouTube and started listening. Hooked, I downloaded a couple of their albums. An instant fan, I searched for when they would next be in the UK: they were so good I was sure they would be regulars touring the world. But no. No London tour dates coming up. Then they were coming to Europe, but not to the UK.
As it happened, a more passionate fan than me – and they have very passionate fans – told them of her desire for them to come to London, and they squeezed an extra date into their calendar. The story is important because Over The Rhine are a duet full of stories. As they write on their website: “The songs we write will eventually be what we refer to as our life’s work. And we’re going to work really hard to make sure the songs keep getting better.” In fact, it’s been eight years since they were in the UK, and even for a band together for a quarter of a century, that’s a long absence.
In a church (St Giles in the Fields), Linford Detweiler and Karen Bergquist – the husband and wife songwriting, guitar-playing, piano-tinkling, team – took to a sparse altar to ply their trade. An intimate show, a crowd of about 300 filled the pews – some even called forward to take the seats in the ‘Amen Pews’ to the side of where the band were playing. Talking to a couple of the most passionate devotees before the show who had considered travelling to Amsterdam so not to miss this pair, it became apparent the loyalty their music mustered. “There’s something Catholic about it,” said one, without any elaboration.
When they began playing, starting with songs from the 2013 double album Meet Me At The Edge Of The World, the crowd sat in hushed awe. The applause reached the rafters, and when Linford took to the grand piano almost embedded in the audience to play I’d Want You – introduced with surprise at its frequent use to accompany marriage proposals – the silence was anything but saccharine. As the piano stilled and the voices went quiet, no one in the audience shared their surprise.
Their lyrics are packed full of references to the sacred, but meaning sits slightly out of reach. Hearing them introduce and talk about the origin of some of their songs peeled back a few of the layers, but many more remained only translucent at best. Only God Can Save Us Now, perhaps the most obvious in its title but most oblique in its lyrics, was written after Bergquist’s mother went into a nursing home following a stroke and it’s about the characters they encountered staying there. It’s about the tragedy and absurdity found living in parallel, the impending scenes of death and the ritual iteration of aspects of lives well lived.
Every song has a story, and the story of the pair is what makes it so compelling. Lines that from other artists might seem contrived are instead profound. “You’re my water, you’re my wine, you’re my whiskey from time to time. You’re the hunger, on my bones, all the nights I sleep alone. Sweet intoxication when your words wash over me. Whether or not your lips move, you speak to me.”
Detweiler and Bergquist were at such easing playing, completely at home with their songs, utterly committed to making music. They quipped that they thought perhaps they might return to normal lives one day, but this had become their normal. They talked of their barn in Ohio and what they wanted to do with it. They seemed almost uncomfortable with the fawning of strangers, but eager to greet friends who had come to see them. Repeatedly, people told them to return: to play in Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, Dublin; pledging that there were countless committed fans passionate enough to pack out venue after venue.
But Over The Rhine are relatively unknown, and that’s a travesty; part of me doubts whether they could fill venue after venue. And now, following Sunday’s performance, I’m at risk of becoming one of those borderline obsessive devotees who will do whatever it takes to spread the message and ensure that when they return there are many more fans waiting for them.
Wish you were there too? Have a listen to the band’s music on YouTube.