Concert Heartstrings Review

Carry That Weight: Strand Of Oaks at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge

By: Asher Alexander

Over the course of his career, Timothy Showalter, AKA Strand of Oaks has proven he’s an artist who is not afraid of change. With each album since his debut, 2009’s beautiful folk inflected Leave Ruin, Strand of Oaks continually adds new layers and textures to his music. His newest album HEAL is his most dynamic yet. The record perfectly marries his core commitment to classic american songwriting with a heaviness, a weight in both subject and sound. It paints a clear picture of an artist fully dedicated to moving confidently in a new and personally meaningful direction.

This new direction was brilliantly displayed on August 28th at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon. Early on in his set he eased into “JM,” one of the stand out tracks from HEAL. Each verse began with a delicate slow burn — just his voice, guitar and the minimally restrained accompaniment from his excellent supporting band — followed by the weight, of which the slow burn suddenly became a raging inferno. Like a pipe organ with all the stops pulled out, the music hit like a ton of bricks; an absolute wall of sound that recalled Neil Young & Crazy Horse firing on all cylinders. The band locked in and anchored a heavy bed of noise, letting the guitar solo fly above it untethered. As if to drive home the Crazy Horse comparison even further, Showalter brought the song to a close by quoting a few bars of the melody of “Cortez The Killer.” It was, in a single song, a microcosm of where Strand of Oaks has been and where he is going — a confident statement of past, present and future.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exSbJDbzsak&w=560&h=315]

Though Strand of Oaks currently reside in Philadelphia and grew up in Indiana, Showalter clearly felt right at home in the great northwest. He was positively energized on stage, with his shouts of “Fucking Portland Oregon!” punctuating “JM.” The combination of joy for the moment’s time and place, and clearly palpable excitement for the music he was making, made for a captivating set. Showalter commented that every other time he’d come through Portland, it was as a “mellow, folky guy,” but he was thrilled to be playing with a full band, which reverts to his younger days of “playing in bands, head banging to ‘Even Flow’.” It’s this nostalgia and return to his roots and beginnings that is driving him forward artistically.

As a nod to the roots of Strand of Oaks, the rest of the band left the stage leaving Showalter alone for a beautiful version of “Diamond Drill,” the opening track of 2012’s Dark Shores. Subsequently, the band slowly filtered back on stage one by one for HEAL’s “Woke Up To The Light” and “Shut In.”

Strand of Oaks’ songs often deal with making hard choices in an imperfect America. The opening lyric of “Shut In” encapsulates the perspective of those dilemmas perfectly:

I was born in the middle, maybe too late, everything good had been made.

The genius of that line lies in “maybe.” Strand of Oaks has often been held up as a contemporary torch-bearer of Bruce Springsteen and the Boss used the “maybe” to a similar effect in his American classic “Atlantic City”  when he says:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

In both songs the outlook is bleak. They inhabit a modern world where times are hard and nothing is for certain. But one of the strongest threads that ties Strand of Oaks and Springsteen together is that both artists know that within uncertainty there is always hope.

At this point in the set Showalter told a personal story that underscored the uncertainty of his early musical development and drove home his affection for Portland. Four years ago, in 2011, he came out to Portland to play Pickathon, at which point he wasn’t sure if music was what he wanted to do. Those who have been to Pickathon know just how special, magical and rejuvenating it is for attendees as well as performers and his experiences at the festival helped motivate him to continue down his chosen path of making music.

The final portion of the set featured HEAL‘s dreamy piano driven “Plymouth”, followed by some lighthearted banter with the audience about what adjectives best describe the members of Strand of Oaks’ backing band. After everyone had a few good laughs at his band’s expense, Showalter closed things out with a pair of songs that are excellent representations of the delicately heavy dichotomy of the Strand of Oaks current sound. “Sterling,” the only song played from 2010’s Pope Killdragon, gradually built intensity to a psychedelic hypnotic wash of guitar fuzz. If you listen to Strand of Oaks recorded output in chronological order, “Sterling” would be the first place that the aggression begins to bubble above the surface. And rather appropriately, HEAL’s final track “Wait For Love” closed out the set.

After a brief break, the band returned to the stage for an encore. “Mirage Year” had everyone throwing their all into each note. Showalter was ecstatic, thrashing around as the song built to its apex, then crashing to the ground in a heap clutching his guitar as the sublime distortion gave way to clarity, and then finally fell to silence.

HEAL will without a doubt show up on many year end “best of” lists, and rightfully so. Strand of Oaks has reached deep into his own personal and artistic roots to create a truly powerful album. His captivating and honest performance at the Doug Fir proved that not only is he an artist to watch but that he is an artist to believe in.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9VaNamkXw0&w=560&h=315]

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