‘Love & Revelation’: The Winding, Uphill Road

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“The poet Christina Rosetti has a poem that begins, Does the road wind up hill all the way?  She assures us that it does indeed, until the very end, but there are surprising rewards along the way nonetheless. We don’t know that it ever really gets easier.”

-Karin Bergquist, in the press materials for Love & Revelation, due out on Mar 15

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a young duo began writing songs from a neighborhood in Cincinnati, which at that time – 30 years ago – was considered among the most dangerous in the nation. That historic enclave would give the band its name, Over The Rhine (now, by the way, a hotbed of revitalization in the Midwestern city).

overtherhine1Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler (who would marry several years later) built a modest but devoted regional fanbase on the strength of the obvious spiritual searching reflected in their lyrics.  In the early 90’s, IRS Records heard the potential in their penetrating folk-pop and reissued their first two independent releases. IRS would only go on to issue a third album before releasing the band from its contract. But strangely – and perhaps prophetically – their two best sellers to that point would turn out to be their subsequent independent releases, a melancholy semi-Christmas release (The Darkest Night of the Year) and their breakthrough, Good Dog, Bad Dog (no doubt, still cited as a favorite among early fans).

These records would lead to a contract with Virgin imprint, Back Porch Records, as well the most press attention the band would ever receive. Their second release for Back Porch, Ohio, is widely considered a folk-rock masterpiece, a double album opus that lays bare their distinctive sense of place, a signpost that would provide the guiding impulse for much of their music – and their lives – in the coming decade.

By the time their third release for Virgin arrived, the record company had likely made its decision to mostly abandon Over The Rhine, having made a hard push with Ohio. In 2005, the record business was lurching into chaos, and Back Porch Records was little more than an afterthought in a very large corporation preparing to enter into an age of industry consolidation (Back Porch would fold up entirely shortly thereafter).

To complicate matters, Drunkard’s Prayer arrived with the startling revelation that Karin and Linford’s marriage had nearly come apart at the seams in the years preceding it. The album is as powerful and personal as anything they’ve ever recorded, and as a document of a marriage in crisis, it can be a harrowing listen. Though several tracks bear the mark of radio friendly folk-pop, most of the album reveals new musical depth. Karin’s vocals and Linford’s piano, in particular, have an after-hours unearthliness not previously heard.

overtherhine4Finding themselves without a label in 2006, Over The Rhine modestly charted a course that would set the forward path for their careers and lives, even to this day.  The band released the first of several independent live records, Live From Nowhere Vol. 1.  These would be followed by additional volumes and, ultimately, a new studio release The Trumpet Child.  The duo spoke openly during this period about their love of pre-rock and roll music and how they wanted to reflect those influences more strongly in the music.  The Trumpet Child swings and sways, sounding often like a tipsy celebration following what was no doubt a difficult period of transition for the band.  Taken in context with the darker moods of Drunkard’s Prayer, the album also made clear that Over The Rhine intended to sound like something more than a folk-rock band with literary proclivities.  In short, Over The Rhine sounded very much like themselves and not a whole lot else out there.

The plan for the next studio record would defy music industry norms at the time, while also predicting industry trends still a few years away.  Recognizing that what the band lacked in number of fans was largely compensated for by the devotion of their listeners, Over The Rhine set up a simple appeal on their website to raise funds for the recording of the record.  With no intermediary, they simply offered fans – referred to often by Linford as “extended musical family” – several options to purchase the record, along with options to receive a producer credit.  This was made possible due to the hard-earned trust between Over The Rhine and their listeners, a bond forged and honored mutually from the band’s early days.

(It is worth noting at this juncture that tech industry startups seeking to model similar crowdfunding schemes for new music appear to be flailing in recent months.  In fact, PledgeMusic, once a pioneer in music crowdfunding, is now under fire for withholding payments from artists after successful fundraising campaigns.  There are, no doubt, several lessons to be gleaned about allowing money-lenders into the temple of artists, etc., but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)

To this day, you can read the extensive list of names who helped fund the making of The Long Surrender included in the CD and vinyl editions of the album.  With funds in hand to create a great record, Karin and Linford made, in my opinion, the best musical decision of their careers by reaching out to Joe Henry to produce The Long Surrender.  Amazingly, if memory serves me, Joe had never heard Over The Rhine’s music at the time, despite what I think was probably a sizable overlap between his fans and theirs.  In hindsight, it seems painfully obvious that Karin and Linford would become great musical confederates of Joe, not to mention close friends.  But at the time, I was just thrilled that my favorite producer was being enlisted by one of my favorite bands to help make an album.

There’s not really much for me to say about The Long Surrender that isn’t already implied in the preceding paragraph.  It exceeded my wild expectations by a substantial margin, and remains probably my favorite Over The Rhine record, my favorite production of Joe Henry’s impressive list of work and simply one of my favorite albums ever, sitting comfortably alongside several of Joe’s own records.  Further, I think The Long Surrender accomplished musically what Karin and Linford had been laying the foundation for since Drunkard’s Prayer.  Lyrically, it is mystical but also wickedly funny.  With a band of Joe Henry regulars backing them – Jay Bellerose, David Piltch, Greg Leisz, Levon Henry, Patrick Warren – Over The Rhine seemed to find the perfect set of sympathetic musicians to realize their vision.  It was a wildly successful collaboration that would find continued success in the future.

otr_1Sometime around this time, Karin and Linford took stock of their professional and personal lives and settled on the need for a major change.  Feeling the pull of rural Ohio, the couple purchased a small farm house and barn in Martinsville, about an hour from Cincinnati.  This would turn out to be their most pivotal decision yet, laying the groundwork for a unique creative vision that is evolving even to this day.  Again turning to their extended family, funds to renovate the barn were raised online, giving fans the opportunity for intimate concerts at the site and invitations to events like songwriting workshops.

With their new rural home – lovingly named Nowhere Farm – Karin and Linford were inspired to write an album reflecting the natural wonder surrounding them and the powerful sense of home and place.  Meet Me at the Edge of the World was funded in a similar online fashion as The Long Surrender and was again recorded with Joe Henry at his Garfield House studio, with sessions beginning the day after Easter 2013.  If The Long Surrender is shrouded in smoke and shadow, Meet Me at the Edge of the World is its pastoral cousin, defined largely by Linford’s guitar work (or more specifically, his lack of piano playing).  References abound to the land and creatures occupying Nowhere Farm, and the resulting double album – the second of their career and much stronger than Ohio – reflects deep reserves of confidence and, yes, maybe even contentment.

In seeking to convert the ancient barn at Nowhere Farm to a usable performance space, Over The Rhine hosted an ambitious fundraising effort on the grounds of their home.  The so-called Barn Raising Concerts occurred on Memorial Day Weekend 2015, and they were joined by the newly christened Band of Sweethearts (Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood, all of whom played on the Meet Me at the Edge of the World sessions).  Funds were also raised online, resulting in a double CD live album documenting the weekend’s shows.

otr_barnBy 2016, enough work had been done to the old barn to allow Over The Rhine to host their most ambitious project yet, the Nowhere Else Festival on the grounds of Nowhere Farm.  Nothing like a typical music festival, the event would host performances by Joe Henry, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Birds of Chicago and Lucy Wainwright Roche, as well as songwriting workshops, guided nature walks and talks by artist Barry Moser.  The barn housed artwork and showcased future plans for the loft, still underway.  It was one the most unique – and most beautiful – events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, and it was successful enough to justify repeating Nowhere Else Festival in 2017, 2018 and now in 2019 as well.

So what is this story?  I hope it is that of a band finding a new way to record, perform and live mostly on their own terms, now and well into the future.  By inviting their fans into the process – and finally even inviting them to their home – Karin and Linford have created a blueprint for continuing their work in a way that transcends piling themselves in a van for six months each year.  I’m sure their grandest plans for Nowhere Farm are yet to be realized but by humbly placing their faith in their listeners, hopefully they will be doing this for many years to come.

So… something about a new album?  The backstory feels necessary because it has now been over five years since the release of Meet Me at the Edge of the World (and four years since their third holiday-themed release Blood Oranges in the Snow).  I hope I’ve recounted this history somewhat accurately, often based on my recollections of the lovingly crafted newsletters sent out by Linford over the years. 

Linford Detweiler and Karin Berquist of Over The RhineThe release of Love & Revelation – sent out this week to those who funded it and available generally March 15 – feels like a celebration of sorts, hard won after a few years of victories as well as setbacks.  If it carries that weight with the listener, the album itself bears no sign of such a burden.  In fact, it glides by in 42 minutes with a gentle grace and often light touch.  The first half of the record certainly offers up its share of uneasiness, but during the album’s second half, the tone shifts and lightens and ultimately arrives at some kind of peace.

In recent years, I’ve heard Linford make – or repeat, I can’t recall – the statement that songs are prayers.  In the final verse of his song “Let You Down,” he sings:

And if a song
is worth a thousand prayers,
we’ll sing till angels come carry you
and all your cares.

If this album has a running theme, that might best sum it up (actually, it might as well be the mission statement for Over The Rhine).  Indeed, many of the songs on the record, which leans heavily on Karin’s songwriting, share a cadence not unlike a hymn, repeated appeals for mercy in the face of heartache and uncertainty.  Only on the title track, written by Karin, and Linford’s “Betting on the Muse” (inspired by Charles Bukowski) does the almost beat poetry of previous efforts appear.  The remainder of the album is marked by a particularly spare lyrical style, befitting the overall mood.

Though Joe Henry was unable to produce due to an extended trip to Ireland during the recording, his spirit lingers over the proceedings.  In fact, Karin states in the press materials:

“Joe always used to sign off in his emails and letters with ‘Love & Revelation, JH.’ It was a little blessing he would offer—his wish, I suppose, being that anyone who came into his circle would know love and be open to being surprised. The phrase became important to us, and we asked Joe if we could use it for the name of the record. He quickly gave us his blessing.”

Appropriately, Henry regulars Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos, Greg Leisz and Patrick Warren all play on the record, which was engineered by Ryan Freeland (JH’s regular engineer) at his studio in California.  They are joined also by longtime Over The Rhine sideman Bradley Meinerding.  It’s tempting to wonder how this record might be different with Joe’s production, but there’s no doubt that Love & Revelation is a tremendous work, bearing all the hallmarks of the duo’s 30 years’ worth of songwriting and recording experience.

Lastly, you may recall Karin and Linford’s participation in Joe Henry’s 2014 Wild Edges concerts in Durham, NC, where newly written songs were performed for the first time alongside Joe and the Milk Carton KidsLove & Revelation marks the debut of three songs from those evenings:  “Los Lunas” (which opened both shows), “Making Pictures” and “Betting on the Muse.”  If you’d like to read more about those evenings, you find my recap here.  Those shows were recorded by Ryan Freeland but have not been released.

(You can pre-order Love & Revelation from the band’s online store here – orders instantly receive the title track for download.

Tickets to 2019’s Nowhere Else Festival are available here, with additional information here.)

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