Live Review: Over The Rhine, Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 1, 2021

What makes Over The Rhine’s Christmas shows a December tradition worth revisiting is their acknowledgment that it’s not necessarily the most wonderful time of the year. They call it “reality Christmas,” but as singer/guitarist Karin Bergquist copped to, we’ve been feeling pretty low year-round for a while now.

Bringing their acoustic duo tour to World Cafe Live, Bergquist and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler, set the tone with their opening number, “All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue.” If the torchy tune served as a thesis statement, the rest of the set amply supported it, each melancholy song revealing another rich shade of seasonal depression.

Bergquist and Detweiler transitioned smoothly from carols and standards like “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” to spot-on covers like Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and even a few originals that aren’t explicitly tied to the season, including “Bothered” (from the band’s 1996 album Eve) and the new “Heron Blue.”

But at the heart of the concert were eight songs from Over The Rhine’s three holiday albums: 1996’s The Darkest Night Of The Year, 2006’s Snow Angels and 2014’s Blood Oranges In The Snow. Freely mixing wonder and tragedy, “Mary’s Waltz,” “Amelia’s Last” and “First Snowfall” cut to the heart of what it means to hold out hope when you’re almost too cold to feel it flicker.

Everything sounded gorgeous, of course. Bergquist’s voice can be plaintive or commanding, yet it’s always resonant and relatable. Detweiler started and ended the show on piano, sometimes mournful, sometimes rollicking, and moved to guitar for couple stretches. Leaving the rest of their band behind for this tour, they were sensitive to when a song called for extra texture and when the spaces between notes said more than a second instrument could.

Not long after playing “Another Christmas” (with its refrain “I hope that I can still believe/The Christ child holds a gift for me/Am I able to receive/Peace on earth this Christmas”) Detweiler recalled a moment when Bergquist despaired, “Peace on earth—we’re never gonna get there.” Most other artists with the same spiritual bent might have been tempted to insist it’ll all work out, but their embrace of reality has too much integrity for that. Hopes and prayers are no match for hardened hearts, and it’s up to each of us to resist—if we’re up to it.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich