Some nights at MOTR, the music begs for a larger stage, nights when the band is clearly playing venues this size one last time before they move to the big rooms. Strand of Oaks played such a show to a packed house on Thursday, three days removed from their network television debut on Late Night with Seth Myers, and a little over a week into a lengthy American tour off of June's HEAL (we sat down with the band prior to their set HERE). Timothy Showalter recorded much of the album, their fourth LP and first on Dead Oceans, in his home studio, but he's put together an impressive quartet to bring its expansive sound to the stage.
The new material dominated the set, easing us in with opener "For Me" before plowing into the title track. Occasionally, as on HEAL MVP "Shut In," the group would have benefited from a second guitarist, but for the most part the guitar-keys-bass-drums quartet did just fine, slightly stripping down the new songs and beefing up the old ones.
The first half highlight was undoubtedly "JM," a gorgeous tribute to the late Jason Molina. Using the pace and chord changes of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" (which Showalter alluded to more than once during his solos), the song harkens back to listening to Molina's work as an Indiana teenager--"I was staring at the map, feeling fire in my head/I had your sweet tunes to play." He muttered at the start, "we're gonna burn this one a little longer tonight," and he wasn't kidding--a seven minute track on record, it stretched past ten in this rendition.
A quieter midsection followed, highlighting their earlier records. Showalter introduced the gorgeous "Sister Evangeline," warning us, "I played this song in Sweden and lost my mind for about six months afterwards," an incident he's touched on in recent interviews. "Let's hope I fare better tonight." He certainly did, but performing the song visibly took him to a pretty dark place. He then invited keyboardist Eliza Hardy Jones back onstage to perform "Diamond Drill" and "Two Kids," before the full band roared back to life with HEAL opener "Goshen '97."
The evening's penultimate song, "Sterling," is still Showalter's masterwork, a desolate bender that sees the narrator drink himself to sleep on a hotel rooftop with John F. Kennedy, "just for some company." In concert, the track is sped up, and the closing chant on the recorded version is replaced with a building squall of guitar noise--in many ways the spiritual twin of "JM." The band rounded out the night with album closer "Wait For Love," itself reaching an impressive crescendo, before bidding us a gracious goodnight.
The buzz for HEAL has often lingered in dangerous territory--a beard band with an origin story that threatens to overshadow the music (think Bon Iver with less cabin and more house fire). Thankfully, it's a strong enough record to overcome this, and if they keep playing shows like Thursday's, the sky's the limit for this displaced Hoosier.
Arkansan Christopher Denny put in an impressive opening set, focusing on material from If The Roses Don't Kill Us, his first album in seven years. Performing solo on a hollowbody Stratocaster, Denny wrapped the his idiosyncratic tenor around songs that could have been pressed to 78s and collected on a Harry Smith anthology--timeless and quirky.
Strand of Oaks setlist:
Wait for Love
Christopher Denny setlist:
If the Roses Don't Kill Us
Jesus is on the Mainline (Traditional)
Watch Me Shine
All the Best (John Prine cover)
Our Kind of Love