Get Loose: Strand of Oaks takes Boot & Saddle on a journey for the 2017 Winter Classic

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Strand of Oaks | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

In cased you somehow missed it, “Get Loose” is Timothy Showalter’s mantra of 2017.

Those two words have been used effusively by his band Strand of Oaks: it’s a lyrical refrain in “On The Hill,” it’s a command shouted from the stage and a catchphrase on social media to get fans hype for their tour; it appears on huge block letters on t-shirts at the merch stand. Hell, it’s all over the artwork to Harder Love, the companion LP to this year’s Hard Love that Philly fans picked up an early copy of at the third annual Winter Classic, Oaks’ three sold-out nights at Boot & Saddle earlier this month.

The spirit of the phrase is all about loosening oneself from external expectation, finding joy in the moment, living your life for yourself and those who you love most dearly. With those shows, however, “get loose” took on a different meaning for Showalter: he was loose of the band he’d been touring with all year and loose of their locked-in style of improv that, while dazzling, could eclipse the incredible songwriting at the core of it all; he was loose of the sets focused largely on 2017’s Hard Love — recently named one of our don’t-miss record of the year — sets that rarely included anything earlier than 2014’s HEAL.

The Winter Classic shows were Showalter, on stage by himself for the better part of three straight nights, performing different and deep-diving song selections each show — constructed with fan input, his setlists touched on cuts from all five Oaks studio LPs, including songs he hasn’t played in five-plus years (maybe ever?), with a recurring jam from the slated January release of Harder Love and a new song dedicated to his wife Sue.

He was loose and, admittedly nervous about the ordeal — there was nothing to hide behind, just Tim and his gregarious personality. And at the end of it all, that looseness made room for discovery and re-discovery, for audience and artist alike. Here’s what we heard and saw that weekend.

Strand of Oaks | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

NIGHT ONE

“I’ve been looking forward to this all year,” Showalter enthused upon stepping to the stage with a glass of wine. He had a Juno keyboard set up at stage right, and tackled “J.M.” and “Radio Kids” bathed in moody, warm synth tones, apologizing for facing the stage wall instead of the crowd. “I’m here staring into the black void, concentrating on getting my fingers on the right chords.” (He did totally fine.)

From there, “Lawns Breed Songs” from 2009’s Leave Ruin was introduced amid thoughts on revisiting music he wrote in his 20s at age 35, music he hasn’t played since 2011 — what meaning remained, and what changed over time. A mention of Wilkes-Barre’s Market Street Bridge in his introduction to “Alex Kona” got hearty howls going from the front-left of the room. “That’s a very 570 response,” Showalter laughed. Again dipping back to Leave Ruin for “End in Flames,” he addressed that evolving sense of meaning more explicitly: “I’m trying to bridge the gap between sad songs and fun times. I think that’s the Strand of Oaks mission; we can get sad but we can have a good time together.”

The word “together” was key. A roaring full-room singalong to “Shut In” followed, along with a beautiful and reflective new song Showalter dedicated to his wife Sue — with vivid imagery about meeting her after work at the train station, dreaming of running away together, and the earnest lyric “Man, I gotta get my shit together before I’m 40,” it made an indelible mark. After a cathartic singalong to Pope Killdragon‘s “Last to Swim,” the night closed on another audience participation high — “Goshen ’97,” assuring that our voices would be raw the next day.

Singer-songwriter Shannen Moser was slated to open the show, but had to drop off at the last minute for personal reasons. Jake Ewald played a solo Slaughter Beach, Dog set to fill the spot, and went over tremendously well with the crowd, and Showalter himself. Quoth Tim: “I don’t know if this is going to make me sound old or hip, but it reminded me of The Weakerthans, and their music meant so much to me in my 20s.”

Slaughter Beach, Dog | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Setlist
J.M.
Radio Kids
Lawns Breed Songs
Alex Kona
Passing Out
For Me
Woke Up To The Light
On the Hill
End in Flames
Shut In
New Song
Sterling
Heal
Trap Door
Last to Swim
Goshen ’97

Strand of Oaks | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

NIGHT TWO

If Showalter’s so-called “Loose Meter” (aka his right arm tipping from side to side as if it was a seismometer getting a Richter reading on the room) was nestled somewhere in the 80% zone of cathartic togetherness on night one, the second night tipped it far towards the top — it was a rowdy sort of loose, propelled by a crowd who braved the snow to see the show, and it was awesome. Having the powerful “Satellite Moon” from 2013’s Dark Shores near the very top of the setlist helped a lot; that song is a lowkey rager, and doesn’t get played enough.

Sue was beckoned onstage to sing another Dark Shores cut, “Diamond Drill,”; she’s got a wonderful, understated voice, a hushed delivery that’s very vulnerable and sincere and served the song incredibly well. A bit of a sensitive run followed, including “Two Kids,” my fave from Leave Ruin. And then things got loud.

For his second family member brought to the stage, Showalter invited a man who he called “the best bassist in the world,” Bob Gryziec, formerly of Wilkes-Barre cult faves The Buoys (who also happens to be his father in law). They got in the zone for simmering renditions of “Sterling” from Pope Killdragon and “Taking Acid and Talking To My Brother” from Hard Love, and even though those songs are kind of on the mellow side, the energy was palpable.

From there, it was a veritable hit parade — “Radio Kids” from Hard Love, “Passing Out” from Harder Love (how the hell was this song left out of the proper album?! It’s so freaking good, classic Oaks to a tee), “Goshen ’97” and “J.M.,” after which Tim shared his story about the only time he met the late Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia, who inspired the song. “I played a show in Bloomington, this short guy with bushy eyebrows came up to me after the set,” he recalled. “All he said was ‘I liked the third one,’ and then he walked away. It was him, that song was ‘Sterling,’ and it’s almost like he gave it his blessing.”

After another top-of-our-lungs screamalong to “Shut In,” Showalter brought Gryziec onstage one more time and told a story about their first-ever meeting (“he was in the basement, his vibe zone, and he was smoking, probably a joint, and he turned to me and said ‘YOU LIKE CAPTAIN BEEFHEART?!'”). He then asked Gryziec to sing lead on the closing song — a cover of “Gloria” by Them, which had the room hoisting pints and howling along, closing the night on a party-like high.

The opener this night was slated to be John Dyer Baizley of heavy rock rippers Baroness — which, nobody knew what that was going to entail, including Baizley himself apparently. He told the crowd that he was nervous about the set, since he typically does not play acoustically or solo, and wound up being joined onstage by Gina Gleason, lead guitarist in Baroness; he’d asked her to play the gig with him only a week before. Their knockout set was pretty much stripped-down and re-arranged Baroness cuts, accented by tasty solos. A total treat, and a giddy Showalter watched from the back, heckling “ACTIVE ROCK” as they played jams like “Chlorine and Wine” and “Shock Me.”

Baroness | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Setlist
Hard Love
Satellite Moon
Diamond Drill (Sue Showalter on vox)
Same Emotions
Two Kids
Rest of It
Sterling (Bob Gryziec of The Buoys on bass)
Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother (Bob Gryziec on bass)
Radio Kids
Mary
Passing Out
Goshen ’97
J.M.
Shut In
Gloria (Them cover with Bob Gryziec on bass vox)

Strand of Oaks | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

NIGHT THREE

Again, each night of the Oaks Winter Classic had its tone. Night one — cathartic joy. Night two — rowdy party. Night three — contemplative serenity.

It was beautiful — the aching “Cry” up top led to a “Shut In” that felt more subdued after the previous two nights of ecstasy; another performance of the new song dedicated to Sue dovetailed incredibly into the romantic “Plymouth” from HEAL. The tender “Sister Evangeline” from Leave Ruin made an appearance, as well as the shimmering “Salt Brothers” from Hard Love. There wasn’t as much conversation as the previous nights, at least not at first, and this gig felt like it was shaping up to be the dreamy and downbeat denouement to the Winter Classic.

Which would have been fine, in a way. But I’m so happy that a few things put the set over the edge and into the magic of the previous two nights. First: “Little Wishes,” the closing track of Dark Shores. Goddamn this is a terrific song, and has he ever played it live before? Setlist.fm says no, but Setlist.fm is woefully incomplete with its Oaks content. Somebody fix that. Anyways, it was a cut I was not expecting to hear, and I’m so happy I did hear it — especially followed by the resplendent “Passing Out” once again, into the remarkable noir fantasy “Daniel’s Blues,” my favorite from Pope Killdragon, and in many ways the song that put Oaks on a lot of listeners’ radars.

Beyond the musical side of the show, Showalter finally addressed the elephant in the room, which was actually a tiger — an ornate framed illustration of a tiger that sat against the back wall all three nights. Somebody asked, and Tim explained he found it on the sidewalk while going on one of his regular strolls through the Northwest section of Philly. “I literally walked miles up Germantown Avenue home, carrying this thing, feeling like such a badass,” Showalter said. “I’m pretty sure it was above somebody’s bed. I like to imagine that it has so many memories, this sage looking down.” So Philly, so Tim.

All of these things in the final third of the set, plus a few concluding thoughts from Tim, moved that Loose Meter straight to its highest point. But we’ll get to that. First, the opener — Hemming, aka Candice Martello, whose sets are always powerful and heartbreaking, and who has a knack for getting a room to quiet down and listen. Not that the Winter Classic crowd needed to be told — they were polite and attentive all weekend. But between singles “All I Want” and “All My Friends” and new songs that experiment with sound loops and effects, it’s safe to say Hemming won over some new fans, Showalter included. “That was my first time seeing her, and wow,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to be opening for her in a year.”

Hemming | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Setlist
Radio Kids
Cry
Shut In
New Song
Plymouth
Salt Brothers
Sister Evangeline
Everything
Rest of It
Little Wishes
Passing Out
Daniel’s Blues
J.M.
Wait for Love
Goshen ’97

Strand of Oaks | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

THE TAKEAWAY

As I alluded at the very top of this review, I’ve been somewhat mixed on the Strand of Oaks live band of 2017. While the players in its current configuration are undeniably tight and tremendously talented — bassist Djim Reynolds rocking a robust low end, drummer Mike Sneeringer knocking out dynamic and commanding rhythms, guitarist Jason Anderson shredding licks all over the place — they collectively dove head-on into the world of tripped out, psychedelic jam. And Showalter doesn’t need to jam; he’s got songs. And I felt like they were no longer the focus.

My feelings about this direction went to and fro, and thankfully the set I saw Strand of Oaks play at this summer’s XPoNential Music Festival presented the best of both worlds: a powerful performance from top-notch musicians, sure, but one of present-day rock’s most emotionally gripping songwriters putting his words and melodies and stories ahead of all the fray. It was a glorious performance, and helped me make peace with my initial disconnect. At the same time, I was looking forward to Winter Classic all fall — I’d missed spending time with the Strand of Oaks of old.

Turns out Tim missed it as well. Misty eyed, he took a moment during the final night of the Winter Classic to unpack his feelings about the past year. “I wanted to focus on getting better at guitar,” he began. “I’m getting older, I wanted to be a better player, and I wanted to push myself and be the best performer I can for all of you. So that’s what we did, and I stand by this record — it’s got some serious jams that I love playing. But something got lost.”

That thing, he explained, was connection, the intimacy — the cathartic fire of the HEAL tour shows. And it was something he said he felt once again, all three nights of the Winter Classic; getting loose got him to a point of realization. “I want to get back to that, and we’re going to,” he said. “I’m writing a new album. We’ll be doing more of this next year. We’ll keep fighting together.”

Amen to that. We won’t let these dark times win.

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