Harmonic Resonance

By Brian Volck

I’m used to certain books haunting me long after reading them. Images surface in my mind like flotsam from a derelict ship, and I’m back in that other world, following trodden paths, returning to vistas enlarged by time and the heart’s slow, hidden work.

I’m likewise reluctant to pass judgment on a film when leaving the theater; if it’s not still messing with me three months out, I missed something or it wasn’t there to start with.

It’s less common for concerts to linger, but some do: Walter Susskind, shortly before his death, nearly levitating from the podium as he conducted, without score, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Brahms First Symphony; Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Orchestra, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Pass gracing the Fox Theater stage one night in St. Louis; or, ten years later, members of that same Basie band jamming after hours in a Sedona bar until the owner finally, reluctantly, told us all to go home.

I can, of course, listen to recordings and remember those moments, but their haunting essence is larger and deeper than the music. The closest I come to its heart is “resonance”: a sympathetic vibration between musician and hearer, collapsing distance and distinctions.

In this, Walter Pater’s observation rings true: all art aspires to the condition of music. As a writer, I envy the privilege of performers who, on occasion, enter that sensible state of reciprocity, an experience The Who used to gesture toward in lighting up the crowd while Roger Daltrey sang, “Listening to you, I get the music….”

It’s probably best we don’t go there too often, lest we misconstrue beauty as a given, not a gift. But transcendence makes reentry into the mundane feel like exile: we long to return.

I returned this past December, when Joe Henry joined Over the Rhine—the duo familiar to Glen Workshop attendees—in concert at Cincinnati’s Taft Theater.

Mr. Henry produced Over the Rhine’s new CD, The Long Surrender, in his home studio last year. He didn’t play on any tracks, but his contribution is evident in the album’s rich sonic palette, and fans familiar only with the spare sound of OtR’s Drunkard’s Prayer or the cabaret immediacy of The Trumpet Child may be surprised.

The new CD reaches back to OtR albums like Films for Radio, even as it digs further into the tangled American roots Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler have been unearthing for years.

If you care about music that moves body, head, and heart all at once, then listen to The Long Surrender. But it’s the concert I want to write about.

In most circumstances, Joe Henry, with a dozen albums of his own and a producer’s resume that reads like a Who’s Who of American music, opens for no one. That night, however, he walked on stage wearing a brimless black hat and began to play guitar, backed by drummer Andy Borger, bassist David Piltch, and Joe Henry’s son, Levon, channeling Coltrane on tenor sax. (Pay attention to Levon Henry; anyone who plays like this at nineteen should be worth listening to for decades to come.)

The opening set was brief, and I suspect many in the audience were hearing Henry for the first time, but by the time Karin and Linford seamlessly joined in on Henry’s “The Man I Keep Hid,” even the neophytes understood they belonged together.

Henry’s quirky rhythms negotiate the borderlands of blues, rock, and jazz. His thoughtful, poignant, and often funny lyrics love to paint and tell stories. Mix Tom Waits with Elvis Costello and Loudon Wainwright III, and you might get Joe Henry. (I’d love to hear OtR play with Waits, too, but now I’ve heard something close.)

After intermission, Over the Rhine came on, backed by Borger and Piltch from the first set, and supplemented by Cincinnati’s Nick Radina and Jason Goforth, a Nashville musician summoning indescribable atmospherics from harmonica and pedal steel. The ensemble effect captured much of the CD’s sound, but with an immediacy only live shows create.

Even if the Taft Theatre in December is home turf for OtR, it was nevertheless audacious to fill the set list with every song from their new and, at the time, officially unreleased CD. The performance, energized by friends on stage and in the audience, made it a risk worth taking. Levon Henry returned often with his saxophone, and his father joined in on two songs before the night was over. Whether we knew the music or not, we—all of us—vibrated with each note and waited on every word.

And it’s precisely here that words fail. If you’ve had such an experience, you know all the adjectives and metaphors in the dictionary won’t bridge the gap. As a writer, this is difficult to accept. I was fortunate to meet Joe Henry briefly after the show, but my attempt to give my gratitude words must have sounded to him like gibberish.

Even what I remember of that night isn’t the performance itself, and it’s less so with time. Two months of my life have surely revised the narrative, even if the core experience seems immediate as ever. The memory remains, and that’s enough.

I once imagined artists had special senses tuned to melodies the rest of us can’t hear, but that’s untrue. Artists have the same precious five as you and I. It’s only by habit or grace that they resonate to what others miss, and invite us to join them.

I don’t know how Over the Rhine and Joe Henry stumbled into one another, but I’m confident they each perceived that resonance as it happened. That’s what artists live for.

And on a December night, they set a theatre of friends in motion, too.

Brian Volck is a pediatrician in Cincinnati, OH. He is a graduate of the Seattle Pacific MFA program and is currently researching a book on health, history, culture and the Navajo people.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.