Before June 2014 and his hard-rocking, soul-searching album Heal, Philadelphia's Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks was known for folk melodies, ominous lyrics, and a run of bad luck that found him plagued by house fires and near-death car accidents, and plunged into cycles of addiction.
But he threw himself into wellness, turned his lyrics into plainspoken testaments to survival, and remade his music into rock both fiery and crunchy, attributes on display in Wednesday's homecoming gig at Union Transfer.
Backed by a tight trio (bassist Deven Craige, drummer Mike Sneeringer, and singer/keyboardist Eliza Hardy Jones), Showalter sang with urgency and unstoppable directness. From the moment he bounded on stage with "Same Emotions" and its swell of flanged, U2-ish guitars, to the empowered whispers of "Mirage Year" (an encore, during which he leaped into the audience and hugged nearly every audience member), Showalter couldn't stop smiling.
It couldn't have been easy, spreading the gospel of pain and restoration through a grin, but Showalter did, singing the chorus of "Heal," the album's title tune, with pride: "You got to give out - give up - give in." Soft yet strong, his tenor voice cut through the thrumming bass of "Last to Swim" to paint visions of mosquitoes buzzing and morning light through a window's haze. Then, big and clear, that same voice delivered the lyricism of "Goshen '97," as well as lifting the barely-there melody of "Wait for Love."
Jones' vocals were a lovely counterpoint to Showalter's voice on songs like the country-ish "Diamond Drill." Her hammering piano recalled the sound of Roy Bittan backing Bruce Springsteen, Showalter's hero. Another of his inspirations, the late Jason Molina, was celebrated on the searing "JM." One of Molina's collaborators, Philadelphia lap-steel guitarist Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner, provided a prairie ambience.
Then there were the cover tunes Showalter tackled: a shambolic, full-band rendition of the Replacements' "Alex Chilton," and an electric solo take on Ryan Adams' "My Wrecking Ball," which Showalter turned into something gleeful and anthemic.