Shortly after Over the Rhine formed in Cincinnati nearly 30 years ago, the band appeared on National Public Radio and played a few Christmas tunes. That gift has kept on giving. The group continues to play holiday music on an annual basis. It performs a special holiday show at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16, at Music Box Supper Club
“Some of our earliest musical memories of any kind happened this time of year when we were kids,” says multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler (keyboards, electric bass, vocals) in a recent phone interview. “We have memories of being in little churches and standing around in our flannel bathrobes and impersonating Middle Eastern shepherds and singing the old carols. We worked up a few old carols for that NPR appearance, and [singer] Karin [Bergquist] read a poem called ‘The Oxen.’ We put this program together in the spirit of those childhood Christmas pageants of old. The phones kind of lit up a little bit, and people started asking if we had recorded any of our Christmas music. We hadn’t thought about it at the time.”
Eventually, the band would release The Darkest Night of the Year
, an album that Detweiler refers to as an “odd little recording” that did have some traditional tunes on it. The album opens with a somber rendition of “The First Noel” and includes versions of classic Christmas tunes such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night.”
“It was actually a lot of fun to make that record,” says Detweiler. “We recorded it mostly in my bedroom with some makeshift recording gear. My main objective for that project was just to get the darkness into the record. As the nights get longer and the days get shorter, I wanted to feel that dimension to the season. There’s so much enforced cheerfulness that goes along with Christmas. There’s another side to the holidays that intrigued me. It’s a little bit more serious and frankly heartbreaking at times depending on the circumstances.”
For 2007’s Snow Angels
, the band refrained from revisiting the tried-and-true holiday songs and wrote its own damn Christmas songs. The bluesy opening number, “All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue” comes off as a Billie Holiday number with its woozy vocals and pretty piano melody.
“Irving Berlin said something to the effect that every songwriter who wants to make a living needs to write songs for every occasion,” says Detweiler when asked about the album. “He really tried to do that. There are so many great Christmas songs that have been written. As songwriters, we were curious about the Christmas songs that had not been written.”
With 2014's Blood Oranges in the Snow
, the band continued to present somber Christmas songs.
“After we recorded that, Karin said we had stumbled onto a new genre of ‘reality Christmas music,’” says Detweiler. “If there’s an empty seat at the table or if you’ve lost a loved one or lost a job, that stuff doesn’t just disappear during the holidays. Me being a little bit of a melancholy, artistic type, there’s something heartbreaking about this time of year that I’ve always felt. Some of that comes out in our original tunes. We found some of the space to fill in the gaps where there were very few Christmas songs written.”
The band has compiled the albums into a boxset it will sell at the Music Box gig along with other albums from its extensive catalog. Next year, in fact, will mark a significant milestone for the band. It will signify 30 years since it first formed.
“We’ll certainly lift a glass for the many small victories along the way,” says Detweiler. “More interesting than looking back, we want to look ahead to what’s next. We’re reinventing what our music career looks like. We started our own music festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend, and we’ve been restoring an old 1870s barn. Our dream is to own our music venue in the middle of nowhere. We want to continue to make records and tour too. It's been a long road.”
Over the Rhine, Clarence Bucaro, 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $32 ADV, $38 DOS, musicboxcle.com.