September 21, 1999

P.O. Box 12078
Cincinnati, OH 45212

September 21, 1999

Hello again,

Whole grain toast with red raspberry preserves from Oregon and orange juice for breakfast on a grey Monday morning – I’ll start writing and see how far I get before Karin wakes up and puts the coffee on.

I want to thank all of you who made your way out to Coney Island on that lovely September Saturday night. I keep remembering and smiling all to myself. About 850 people gathered by the Ohio River. What a beautiful audience you all were underneath those hundreds of little white strung lights.

Niki Buehrig walked off stage and said what so many say who open an Over The Rhine show: we have one of the best listening audiences in the world. We are fortunate.

The concert unfolded like an evening one has been meaning to spend for a long time with a few close friends. We were all breathing together and that’s what makes music worth playing. Hearing Jeff Bird’s harmonica and mandolin made me want to do something good for the universe which seemed to be bending right along with his notes. David’s old Fender bass had all that room to move underneath the world and I got to listen to his playing in a brand new way. Jack’s understated guitar textures have a way of contributing to the flow of conversation without monopolizing it. That’s Jack’s appeal: he plays guitar like someone who’s listening to the words. Terri T. has the ability to blend her voice uncannily with Karin’s. People still ask me, “Where did you find her? She sounds EXACTLY like Karin.” Well actually she doesn’t. She has her own voice. But she has the rare ability to match Karin’s tone and to breathe with her.

It was a beautiful night. Thanks so much for being there. (People flying in from California, driving from Chicago, coming down from Michigan, sneaking in from the South: my goodness.)

The Blue Jordan Festival last Saturday couldn’t have been wilder or more different. Jeff Bird got stopped at the border of Canada in U.S. Customs with his contraband harmonicas and they turned him away. It’s going to take 30 days to iron out a snag in his work visa. (These musicians are a threat to society. You can never be too careful.)

But we took a deep breath and called Don Heffington, one of our favorite drummers. He was in a band called Lone Justice and has played with Bob Dylan, Victoria Williams, Tom Waits, The Wallflowers and others. Bless his heart, he dropped everything, hopped on a plane at 5AM the day of the show, flew to Cincinnati, Jack picked him up in his white ’79 Lincoln, we ran most of the set once with much laughter and conversation, packed up and drove North to Sharon Woods.

The Blue Jordan folks are fantastic but they had called the night before to say they really wouldn’t be able to accommodate our typical stage requirements for a six-piece band. This, combined with the fact that the last festival we had played was Lilith Fair, replete with twenty-four stage hands and a separate mixing console for each act (maybe we’ve been a little bit spoiled) and the fact that everything was running about an hour behind schedule Saturday made for a somewhat farcical, surreal, damp, cold night: I’d do it again in a heartbeat. (Blue Jordan Festival is only in its second year and those very capable people will continue to fine tune, I’m sure. It’s already an exciting development for the Cincinnati music scene and will no doubt grow.)

The only crew we brought was our front-of-house engineer who spent 45 minutes attempting to wire the stage together for the six of us, and we spontaneously decided to go ahead and start our set before he could line-check the main system. He therefore spent most of the night trying to figure out why David’s bass was coming through Terri’s channel, et cetera. Yeah, we’re professional alright. Part of the system kept shutting off, and there was a low hum which made me wonder if there were a bunch of Buddhist monks underneath the stage.

I never did get my monitor sorted out and I looked down during the set and unbeknownst to me I had cracked my thumbnail and there were bloody smudged roses from middle “C” all the way up the keyboard about an octave and a half and I thought of Annie Dillard’s cat in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. I guess I was subconsciously hoping that if I hit the keyboard hard enough the monitor might start cooperating. I didn’t hear a note Jack played all night, so I have no idea what he was up to, but I could hear Karin and Don and Terri and David and we had quite a roller coaster ride and sometimes these chaotic concerts are the ones worth remembering. And I kept trying to figure out why I was so happy even though we were probably making fools of ourselves.

I guess because the whole night felt so off-kilter, I went on a few rambling Hammond B-3 tirades that I was pretty embarrassed about later, but when the Spirit feels like it wants to move you have to take that leap of faith in the heat of the moment and dive off the high board and hope that it’s more than just stringing a bunch of cliches together, blah, blah, blah.

Todd and Mitch Kearby and Scott Ross and Kat helped us unload and set up and they were fantastic. Tyler Brown helped our sound engineer try to sort out the madness. Thank you.

But I wish you could have been sitting where I was on stage. Don is a wonderful monster. It reminded me of being in a mid-sixties ragtop Buick Wildcat, on the hills of Fairpoint, Ohio.

Brian Kelley stopped by the house Friday night and I think it’s safe to officially announce that he is no longer part of Over The Rhine. As some of you know, almost three years ago we announced this same piece of news and then a few months later he was back in the band still grinning, still haunted by the holy ghosts of his Pentecostal past. We didn’t want to jump the proverbial gun this time.

When I sat down with Brian early last Spring to discuss the next Over the Rhine record, we got through most of the details there in Sitwell’s Coffeehouse one evening and then drove our separate ways home. In the time it took to reach my house, I knew that Brian and I had probably learned from each other in this lifetime all that we were meant to. We had certainly grown in very different directions as people. I called him later to express this and he said he had been thinking more-or-less the same thing and that ten years was a long time. (Out of respect for Brian, I won’t discuss all the particulars of why it makes good sense to us not to continue working together.)

To some people the idea of change is always read as some version of catastrophe, but nothing could be further from the truth. An artist’s first responsibility is to grow and sometimes that means leaving safe, established, predictable working relationships. It takes courage to move forward even when it’s not convenient. It takes courage to say, “If you should ever leave, then I would love you for what you need.”

I’m extremely grateful for Brian’s contribution to the seven Over the Rhine recordings currently in existence. I’ve always been a fan of his playing and that’s why fourteen years ago I sought him out in a little white church in Marlboro, Ohio where he was playing in his family’s band. Our journey together was unpredictable, and at times exceedingly rewarding. Brian has the potential to have a very bright future, and I’ll be paying attention along with everybody else who appreciates his musicality. There were moments on our recordings that were bigger than all of us. What more can a musician hope for?

People occasionally ask me how I can be excited about making music after being in “the business” and at times certainly struggling for over ten years. I can think of three reasons immediately: one, I’ve learned how to hear my own voice and I try to make time to listen. Two, I’ve learned to surround myself with people I find inspiring, people who shape the way I think and enjoy what they do with the intuitive sense that life is an immeasurable gift. Three, I’ve learned to keep moving.

The ensemble at Coney was a living, breathing entity. If you ever have the chance to gather 800 people by a river and to walk out on stage with six people who have never performed together before but who know how to listen well, let me assure you your heart will not only beat faster, you’ll start making use of senses you didn’t even know you had. In short, for a couple of hours, you will truly live.

I think back over the ten years of Over the Rhine and the changes and experimentation in the band and the determination to try different things and it keeps me interested. One of these days, I’m going to send an E-Mail entitled, “Fans and Change: Ladies and Gentlemen the Sky is Falling.” For your consideration, it would be fun to gather anecdotes and artifacts documenting the countless times over the course of the last ten years we’ve been informed by what seems to be a tiny vocal minority somewhere in the wings that Over the Rhine has more-or-less been ruined. I think you would find it all truly humorous and amusing.

I can remember when a record called Patience was the end of Over the Rhine (it was SO DIFFERENT than ‘Til We Have Faces, What were we thinking?) and then according to some we OBVIOUSLY sold out with Eve and then when we started playing the songs from Good Dog Bad Dog, my god this was DEFINITELY the end.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar and alienating millions of his earliest followers, Joni Mitchell embarking on her jazz phase, line-up changes in The Rolling Stones, Picassso’s distinct periods, Dylan Thomas abandoning his poems to attempt a novel, Elvis Costello breaking up The Attractions and going on in recent years to record with a string quartet or Burt Bacharach, Glenn Gould walking away from a brilliant concert career to write books and radio dramas and focus more on recording-what’s wrong with these people?

Can there be any art without change?

I’m amazed and strangely humbled that as we’ve continued to experiment, in the last two years alone, our audience around the world has basically tripled. Maybe a commitment to not making the same record over and over keeps more than just the artist interested…

It would be of interest to me to open this discussion with you all eventually.

In the meanwhile, pick your own high dive and do the cannonball into the days and nights you’ve been given. According to some, we only go around once.


P.S. For the discussion group only: Stacie informs me that I have reached Darth Vader status, and shields me from your posts regarding my genius for evil lest I gloat incessantly and my appetite for gleeful destruction of all whom I encounter grows insatiable. I am absolutely flattered and I thank you. It must mean that at the very least you’re on topic, which I understand can be rare. I now begin to fantasize about what my version of a death star would look like. I now no longer dream about owning and operating my own apple orchard: I will settle for no less than the entire universe.