Sunday, June 6, 2010

Over the Rhine on a Sunday

I spent the better part of this week in Nashville for the Christian Scholar's Conference at Lipscomb University. It started several years ago as a conference primarily for biblical scholars in Church of Christ affiliated universities. It had fallen on lean times until revived a few years ago (with a big effort on the part of my friend, David Fleer). The revival has included a broader emphasis both academically and ecumenically. Natural scientists, humanities professors, social scientists, etc, now form sessions where papers are presented, books reviewed, and the like. And plenary sessions now find a common focus and typically feature top scholars in their field regardless of denominational affiliation.

This year's focus was on the Arts and Christian faith. The plenary speakers were outstanding. And there were real examples of Christian art, including a performance of the play "Doubt" (also a Meryl Streep movie). But my favorite event of the weekend was the Friday evening performance of Tokens. Tokens is a live radio-show in the spirit of Prairie Home Companion with a definite Nashville flavor and an explicit theological emphasis.

Lee Camp, a theology prof at Lipscomb, is the genius behind Tokens. He narrates the evening, ala Garrison Keillor. There's a blue-grass band of first rate Nashville session mucisians, a radio troupe of actors, and guest musicians. Camp also did interviews, one with the investigative reporter whose work led to the conviction of the murderer in Medgar Evers' civil rights case, and another with Rodney Clapp, a Christian publisher who has just written a book on Johnny Cash. Tokens is first class in every respect. And that includes the theology. It's not in any way preachy, but at the same time it is relevant and poignant. Much of it is carried by the sketches and the music, and so sneaks up on you over the course of the evening until Camp brings more fully into view through his artful commentary. (Way to go Lee!)

My favorite part of the evening was the music of Over the Rhine. I had never heard of them and didn't know any of their music. They are a husband-wife team, Linford Detweiler (piano) and Karin Bergquist (guitar and vocals), from Ohio who have been making music for over 15 years. Itunes classifies their music alternately as pop or rock, indicating the difficulty of placing them in a niche. Detweiler is an accomplished pianist, his beautiful playing ranging from a classical feel, to torch music, to jazz. Detweiler's voice is equally impressive. She takes charge of a song, whether its honky-tonk, jazz, or ballad. She's got range, both vocally and emotionally.

The description of her voice on their website is perfect. "Bergquist’s torchy, devil-may-care voice, brimming with Midwestern soul, unafraid to lay bare every emotional resonance. And again, there’s the life-and-death commitment dripping from her every word. 'I’m either into it or I’m not, because there’s no faking it with me,' Bergquist notes. 'Life’s way too short for that.'”

I was overwhelmed by their last song of the evening, The Trumpet Child. Detweiler's jazz piano and Bergquist's gripping vocal left me no place to go. I was inside every note. There's nothing like live music, and truly nothing like a great live performance, which this one was. The lyrics are outstanding.

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

Kingdom sentiments in the language of jazz. This is how I like my theology in music. Poetic, evocative, surprising. Again, I like how their website says it: "'Believe me, we don’t want to waste anybody’s time,' elaborates Detweiler. 'When we stop believing we’re doing our best work, we’re done. Every song has to be good, every record has to be great, every concert has to have some spiritual significance—something that we can’t quantify, something bigger than all of us.'”

Today I bought this song and their cd, The Drunkard's Prayer. My first favorite is "Little Did I Know."

Little did I know
That I almost let you go
Until I caught a glimpse of life
without you

Little did I know
How deep these roots had grown
Until I felt the earth quake here
without you

And this ache is gonna break me love
Until you come back home
Right or wrong
There is no home without you

And these eyes are never gonna dry
I never knew how I could cry
Until I thought I'd really lost you

Little did I know that I almost let you go
Until I caught a glimpse of life
without you


happytheman said...

put your elbows on the table, i'll listen long as i am able, there's nowhere i'd rather be.

Was wondering did they play with a full band? Thought about going to see them and Andy and others. But alas wedding day here for friends.

Laura and I have seen them across the US many times. We used a couple of their songs for our wedding. One of the many things I love about them is their transparency. When their relationship was crashing down they posted a note on their web page basically saying they were going to take a break and asked people to pray for them. "Drunkards Prayer" was the album that came out of that. The first two "Live from Nowhere" CD's are great, Ohio is fantastic as is Trumpet Child.

Enjoy whenever we have a dinner party we play OTR and people always ask "who is that".

Mark Love said...

Craig, I'm embarrassed I didn't know their stuff. It would make great dinner party music.

They played with the house band that Lee has assembled, which is a very good band. The bass player is leaving on tour with Robert Plant in a few weeks. Just an example of the quality. I liked the Trumpet Child song better live. It was more spare and brought out her voice and the piano more. She was stunning.