Concert Review: Over the Rhine with The Milk Carton Kids at the Birchmere

Juli Thanki | December 5th, 2011

over_the_rhineThose running short on seasonal cheer in the DC metro area last night would have felt at home at the Birchmere, where Americana husband and wife duo Over the Rhine (Linford Detweiler on piano and guitar and guitarist/lead singer Karin Bergquist, joined by a drummer and a lap steel/harmonica player) played as part of their holiday tour: many of the songs that composed one hour and 40 minute set were less “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and more “The Little Match Girl.”

The pair has released two Christmas albums during the span of their 20-year career; they called it “good songwriting practice” to try to come up with Christmas songs that haven’t been written before. They’ve largely succeeded in their quest thanks to a sharp eye for detail as they paint scenes of ragged, rusty ornaments and, in “The Trumpet Child,” a titular character who plays “with Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace.” Their vivid lyrics are only aided by Bergquist’s husky vocals that can easily fill the room one minute and steam it up the next with a torch singer’s smolder.

In between songs, Detweiler and Bergquist wove Prairie Home Companion-esque stories about Amish grandfathers and having to settle for a bucketful of toads instead of a pet puppy that, in addition to being far more entertaining than your average stage banter, also provided an interesting look at the stories behind their music. The majority of the set list was holiday music, songs from their most recent (and very fine) album, The Long Surrender, and a few audience requests, but Over the Rhine also took a few minutes to test out some new material, including “Sacred Ground,” a song about strip mining that paid tribute to the couple’s roots that will hopefully find its way to their next record.

Opening for Over the Rhine were The Milk Carton Kids, a shaggy-haired pair of young men who quickly endeared themselves to the Birchmere crowd by beginning their set with the statement “We’re going to do the six most depressing songs from our collection of 20 or so depressing songs.” Their music, which can be downloaded free on their website, is reminiscent of The Civil Wars mixed with Sufjan Stevens: folky tunes with boyishly-sung vocals and a wry sense of humor. The Kids joined Over the Rhine for the encore, where they cut the microphones and sang Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).” Turns out a night of good music beats holiday cheer any day.

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