Over The Rhine: Carrboro Arts Center, Carrboro, NC, 3/13/10

Twenty years into their career, Ohio’s Over the Rhine – the husband and wife duo, not the neighborhood – is now a genuine underground music force. They rule their home state’s venues, stealthily sell out shows across the country, and sell thousands of albums on their own while somehow remaining virtually unknown. Despite a dedicated fan base that ravenously devours anything they put out, travels to shows in the Midwest and beyond, and generally treats principals Karin Berquist and Linford Detweiler like royalty, you’ll seldom hear their name mentioned anywhere.

The band’s status among music fans is even more puzzling given their highly accessible, personal music. Named one of the 100 Best Living Songwriters by Paste Magazine, the band’s core fan base seems to be the sort of audience that would read that publication. But the venues they’ve played, the artists they admire, and the sonic paths they travel are closer to the realm of Americana, folk, country and blues than the generalized "indie" nation. Their sold out concert at the cozy Carrboro ArtsCenter displayed their affection for simple, heartfelt songs and showed that they don’t write songs and perform as a means to an end, but rather to give the listener a genuine experience through their music.

Like good folk artists, they give plenty of background to their songs. Preferring to make a select few tunes hit the audience harder as opposed to filling those minutes with music that they may not be as excited about, the band offered tales of daydreaming, death, farm life, inspiration, humor, and – a favorite subject – dogs. Joined by an upright bassist and a guy named Kenny who can apparently play anything with strings, Linford and Karin offered a wide variety of tunes during the two-hour show.

The show focused on Berquist’s earthy, expressive vocals, which reminded me of a less ethereal Sarah McLachlan at times, but also of seminal female singers like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. Detweiler ushered the band through deliberate, gut-wrenching moments of mournful piano blues, astute reflections of bluegrass, and somber tunes with country touchstones like dobro, mandolin, and pedal steel. With no drums to be found, the instruments and vocals were allowed to breathe in a slow, satisfying manner that becomes the introspective, verbose nature of OTR’s catalog.

The Drunkard’s Prayer album is a good, bluesy starting point for a show, and they got things started with "Born" and the sensuous slow burn of "Drunkard’s Prayer." "Etcetera Whatever" unfurled as a dreamy atmosphere to match the song’s oceanic lyrical content, and "Johnny and June" took on a grave, profound, and loving tone all at once as a fitting tribute to the Cash family. The heartwarming "Only God Can Save Us," the title and subject matter of which are lifted from Berquist’s experiences volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients, was a highlight, as was Berquist’s autobiographical "Ohio," in which she also assumed piano duties.

The title track from the 2007 fan favorite album The Trumpet Child appeared in a climactic role, followed by the closer "All I Need Is Everything," which dates back to 1996. These two songs, plus a diverse encore, helped encapsulate much about the band in just 5 songs. The encore included sanguine, smoky lounge singing in the new "Infamous Love Song," rollicking folk rock about being a dog lover in "No Kill Shelter," and a nod to bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin with the closing "Honey You Don’t Know My Mind."

Over the Rhine’s approach to performing and recording music is profoundly human, and those who attend the band’s shows are privy to the intimate dynamics that make Linford and Karin’s musical bond so special. The stage may as well be their living room, and the audience their dinner guests. They never try to be anything other than two people who love making music with each other, and rarely in the setting of a concert will you witness such raw emotion, openhearted songwriting and populist aesthetics.

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