Tim Showalter’s songs thrive on the tension between introversion and exultation.
The singer — who records and performs as Strand of Oaks, whether solo or backed by a full electric band, as he was at Union Transfer on Friday — feels the world closing in on him, unable to escape his demons. But if he can only get outside his own brain and face the world, a welcoming community beckons.
It’s an age-old rock-and-roll story about the lonely teenager, singing along to Smashing Pumpkins — as the Indiana-born Showalter depicted himself on his 2014 breakout song “Goshen ’97” — who uses the power of that memory to connect with an audience that longs to feel the same passion.
And it’s the reason why hometown shows such as Friday’s — which was the final date on the first leg of a tour for Eraserland, the new album that stands among Showalter’s best, along with 2014’s Heal — play out like such satisfying celebrations.
The earnest songwriter and guitarist is an unabashed heart-(and tattoo)-on-his-sleeve guy, though pretty much every inch of his being was covered as he took the stage bathed in red light, looking like an apocalyptic holy man in a broadbrim black hat.
(He later joked that his trademark beard was no match for the prodigious facial hair of keyboard player Max Somerville, who played contemplative piano on the plaintive “Wild and Willing” and truly epic closer “Forever Chords,” in which Showalter urged himself to “stop living in your head.”)
Showalter, who is 37 and lives in Mount Airy, is getting ready to celebrate his 10th anniversary with his wife, Sue, who came on stage to give her hubby a smooch before Eraserland’s “Keys.” That love song displayed Showalter’s melodic gift and a forthright charm, as he promises one day to bring home enough bacon to pony up his fair share: “I swear I’ll have a hit and get paid.”
In addition to tour stops such as Friday’s UT show, Showalter has an annual tradition of playing stripped-down shows at the Boot & Saddle in December — the Strand of Oaks Winter Classic — where he tries out new material and deepens his bond with his fans in an intimate setting.
Together these Philly shows provide fuel for an artist who finds those connections essential to his creative well-being. It’s an idea that runs throughout his work. On “Shut In,” from Heal, he sang of the frustrations of the hermetic artist’s life: “I never leave my house / It’s taken too long to figure this out.”
And on “Weird Ways,” from Eraserland, which was recorded in Louisville with members of the band My Morning Jacket, he’s directionless and disconnected: “I don’t feel it anymore … the scene isn’t my scene anymore.”
In the best Strand of Oaks songs, those doubts are overcome, or at least cushioned by the affirmative power of music to summon a crowd and banish the darkness. Friday’s show was highlighted toward the end of the 90-minute evening by “JM,” the Heal song about Jason Molina, the leader of the bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company, who died in 2013 and was Showalter’s songwriting hero.
For “JM,” one of many Showalter tunes that ring out with echoes of Neil Young, Strand of Oaks was joined by Philly lap steel player Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner, the string wizard who is a touring member of Wild Pink, the Brooklyn band that opened the show with a set of mild, well-crafted rock songs.
Showalter specializes in songs about music he loves — there’s a song on Eraserland called “Moon Landing,” partly about walking through fog on a New Jersey beach mourning Malcolm Young of AC/DC. “JM,” is the best of the bunch, built on a personal connection that runs deep: Showalter has a side gig (with Brenner) in a band called Goshen Electric Co., that keeps the late singer’s music alive.
“JM” was sung with conviction, reliving moments of trial and tribulation in which the music was sustaining: “I had your sweet tunes to play.” The song ends with a vow: “Either get out or stay in, I won’t let these dark times win.” What gives Strand Of Oaks’ songs their power is the sense that the struggle is always at stake, and the singer is winning the battle.