Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Karin Bergquist, Over the Rhine and the Power of Authenticity

Adele was amazing at the Grammys the other night. What is so great about Adele is that beautiful, powerful voice.  Did you notice that she was really the only performer without a set?  The Foo Fighters had a garage.  Taylor Swift had a porch.  There was fire and trapeze antics with other performers.  But not Adele.  She didn't need any stage dressing.

For modern music, the performance is sometimes more important than the substance.  Therefore, the modern airwaves are clogged with music that is performed by not so talented singers who cover up their flaws with Autotune, bizarre outfits and swarms of dancers and energetic choreography.  On stage, many hide behind lights, fire and scantily clad dancers.  Madonna had her cheerleaders, for example.  And what better way to hide a flaw than with a "wardrobe malfunction?"

A few weeks ago, we lost a legend.  Etta James was one of the rare singers who really knew how to sing, how to carry a lyric to its emotional potential.  As a videographer, I used to film a lot of weddings.  And through it all, I never grew tired of hearing "At Last."  There was something magical about the way she sang.  Same for Nina Simone.  Dinah Washington as well.  The first time I heard Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," it almost moved me to tears.  It's one of the reasons why I love Mavis Staples. 

Not too many vocalists have that ability.  In terms of modern pop music, Adele definitely fits that bill.

And so does Karin Bergquist.

Karin Bergquist and her husband, Linford Detweiler, make up the core of the band Over the Rhine.  They have been performing for over twenty years.  And over the years, Bergquist has grown not only as a musician and songwriter, but also a singer.  Like Dinah Washington, Etta James and Nina Simone, she has the ability to pack an emotional punch into every lyric delivered.  She ranks up there with the best.

I have written about Over the Rhine before on another blog.  A song that appeared on their second album helped inspire a novel I am currently writing.  I have seen them a couple of times here in Chicago, most recently last December at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I hope to make an Over the Rhine concert a yearly tradition.

There is something magical about the way Bergquist sings.  Hands down, she could run vocal circles around everyone who performed at the Grammys the other night.

Even Adele.

The Long Surrender is the band's most recent album, released last year.   Produced by Joe Henry, the album contains the band's best work to date.  Always heartfelt and often bittersweet, Karin and Linford weave a lyrical and musical tapestry that transcends everyday life and speaks to the soul.  They have a certain authenticity in their music and lyrics.  The emotions are real---and that's what distinguishes a band like Over the Rhine from just about anything played on the radio today.  Or performed at the Grammys, for that matter.

Recently, Karin and Linford celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary and performed a Valentine's Day show for a radio station in Cincinnati.  One of the songs performed was "Infamous Love Song," a song written by Linford documenting the couple's story.   This song, more than any other performed by the band over their twenty years or so, truly highlights Karin's vocal talent.    Close your eyes while listening to the song and you will be transported to a smokey bar, a stiff drink resting on a scarred table while a singer, clutching a microphone, pours her heart and soul into a song that, for that one moment, is the most important thing happening in the room.  This is a classic torch song and could have been the signature song of any in the previous generation of singers mentioned above.  However, this is Karin's song.  She embodies it in such a way that the song and her are one.  If you liked Adele's performance of "Rolling in the Deep," then you'll love "Infamous Love Song" even more.  Adele may have a beautiful and powerful voice.  She may be a stunning performer.  However, she is only 23 and lacks the experience of living.  Karin and Linford channel their lives, with all of the beauty and scars, into their music. 

This love’s the affirmation
Of everything good
The oxygen coursing
Through the blood
The feel of being understood
The belief that, Oh Yes,
Somehow we could

Here is an intoxicating performance of "Infamous Love Song" recorded for their Valentine's Day show for WVXU, Cincinnati:

Karin and Linford couldn't have performed this song 20 years ago.   And that's the thing about art and life.  A true artist grows and matures.  And this is the story of Over the Rhine.  Each album they produce gets better.  Deeper.  More authentic.

Imagine where Adele could be in 20 years.

Perhaps she should listen to Over the Rhine, too.


If you haven't heard Over the Rhine before, do yourself a favor and go to their website.  Currently, they have the entire Long Surrender streaming on their online record player.   I have a couple of their albums on vinyl so you can hear several songs here on the Vinyl Voyage.

Most importantly, if you get a chance to see them live, do it.  You will not be disappointed.

In May, they will be performing an acoustic show at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois.  Check out their current concert schedule.

("Infamous Love Song" Linford Detweiler © 2010 Ariose Music/Scampering Songs Publishing (ASCAP) (ADM. by EMI CMG Publishing)

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