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Over the Rhine presents its version of holiday songs

The Troubadour, West Hollywood, Cal., November 30, 2016

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Shortly before performing Merle Haggard's downer Christmas song, "If We Make It Through December," Over The Rhine co-leader Linford Detweiler remarked how his wife (and other half of OTR) Karin Bergquist recently described the act's holiday sounds as "reality Christmas music."

And when a duo includes a song like "My Father's Body," which finds Detweiler grappling with his father's death and opens with the un-cheery words, "My father's body lies beneath the snow," this has listeners fully convinced they're not kidding around.

Bergquist's angelic vocals, however, can bring warm light into even the darkest room. The act opened with "Blood Oranges in the Snow," title track to the most recent of three band Christmas albums, which got this reality show/musical experience off to a seriously beautiful start.

If you came in from the cold (okay, 'California cold,' that is) expecting to hear Christmas hymns, songs with jingle bells in 'em and jolly tales of Old Saint Nick, you came to the wrong place. Over The Rhine mainly kept to its own material, rather than cover many holiday favorites. The closest they got to a true Christmas carol was when Detweiler sang "Bethlehem," his pained reworking of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." While serenading the Christ child's hometown, Detweiler observes, "Your heart is breaking/And in your wounded sky/The silent stars go by." Not quite a rousing celebration, all ye faithful.

Detweiler stuck mostly to playing acoustic guitar, singing vocals backing Bergquist, playing a little bit of piano and singing the occasional lead vocal. Bergquist mainly sang, but accompanied herself on guitar for the newer song "Making Pictures." Bergquist sounded as wonderful as always, even though she looked weary.

Without being specific, Bergquist hinted that the recent presidential election has been weighing upon her. She quipped that The Hag's "If We Make it Through December" has never been more appropriate. The act closed with "If a Song Could Be President," which postulates that if the country were governed by top tier songwriters, like Steve Earle and John Prine, rather than career politicians and the like, we'd all be much better off.

Despite the melancholy nature of its set list, Detweiler and Bergquist appeared sincerely glad to be on stage at The Troubadour, a venue Bergquist mentioned more than once that has always treated the band well. It's tempting to put on an obligatory happy face each Christmas and pretend everything's alright. Over The Rhine's not about to play that game, though. No games tonight; just stellar music.