“Sorry, I have dry fingers,” says the woman at will call as she rifles through a stack of tickets. It’s freezing out tonight, and the wind blows through the open doors. I hope the ticket takers don’t have to sit here much longer. No wonder this woman’s fingers are dry.
I’m seated in the first row of the theater flip-down seats. In front of me is an aisleway beyond which is an open area with cocktail tables. In front of the cocktail tables, the stage.
Over the Rhine are a perfect band. I’d have them rep Americana music if aliens landed. You hear a little of everything in them — alt rock, folk, country and all the legends thereof. Cash, Emmylou, Neil Young, R.E.M., and on.
Tonight they have a more extensive set up than I’ve seen them use in recent years. Slide and a rack of electric guitars are present.
Alison Reed, general manager of The Ark, does their introduction.
They come on without much fanfare, opening with Broken Angels, Born and Let It Fall before Karen addresses the room. She and Linford wear matching fedoras tonight.
“How are you?” she asks us. “Are you good?”
Woo, says everyone.
“Well, we’ll change that. It’s Reality Christmas season again…”
The setlist is mostly Christmas material and picks off their most recent release, titled Love and Revelation, released last March.
Though Karin addresses us first, Linford does most of the night’s talking, first from the piano and then from the mic next to Karin. He tells us story after story, about song origins. He actually seems to remember which stories he’s told us in years prior. Karin makes humorous spousal interjections. If it’s all rehearsed, it’s rehearsed very well.
“You say, ‘Let’s grow old together,’” quips Linford. “That’s all well and good till it starts happening...”
It’s getting harder to forget that Linford and Karin are indeed getting on in years. They’re in their mid-50’s now, and most of their audience matches them. There are a few young people here and there, but I’m one of them and I’m 33.
We sit absolutely silent between songs.
“Goodness, you’re well-behaved,” Linford observes during a tune-up. “That’s what you call a listening room. With a capital L.”
He talks about their 30 year anniversary this spring — 30 years since they started writing songs in the rundown over-the-rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. He regales us with his hypnotic rust belt purr. Linford needs to have an ASMR channel on YouTube.
Karin asks who’s known about them for ten years. Fifteen years? Twenty years?
“30 years,” calls a woman from the table area up front.
“Well, you stole my punchline,” says Karin, not peevishly, before hastily finishing the bit.
She mouths an off-mic, ‘Thank you,’ to the woman who stole the punchline.
Linford tells us about their honeymoon, goes on for a good five minutes, before mentioning the song they’re about to play. He’s gone on so long I can’t remember what it was.
“It’s not as long as the introduction,” says Karin.
Heh heh. Marriage.
“He was so quiet and bookish and then he changed,” she says. “Now I just listen…”
30 years has been good to these two. They own the room with just a piano and voice.
“Nice to have a real piano,” says Linford of the Ark’s handsome grand concert piece.
They do Trouble. It kicks.
They cover Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December.
Linford’s guitar skills are underrated during North Pole Man.
Eric Haywood, their accompaniment, plays a lot of weeping steel guitar and looks like Matt Berninger from The National. All three look like your favorite professors.
They thank us for spending an evening of our lives with them and what that’s worth nowadays. They went to school for music. This was the business plan.
Though they haven’t achieved anything near mainstream success, they have built a life off their songs. They own a ranch near Cincinnati. No small feat.
And here they are, touring these small theaters in the Midwest and selling them out on the regular. Neil Young should be opening for them.
The show goes by. It’s worth the money, like always. The music, the banter.
“This song may be for you,” says Karin before they close the set proper with All My Favorite People.
The encore is brief. Another Christmas song. Another song off Love and Revelation, the last song.
More thank you’s all around, bows, and then they’re off.
I think about my relationship with this band. I found them in 2007. Friend’s girlfriend told me about them. I took one look at their discography and promotional shots and knew they’d be a musical family member.
“Good music chooses you,” Philip Seymour Hoffman says as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.
I plan to grow old with this band. I’d be their third wheel anytime.