Timothy Showalter, of the long-running rock band Strand of Oaks, will be returning to his spiritual hometown Thursday and Friday to revive his beloved “Winter Classic” shows for two nights of deep cuts and singalongs at Johnny Brenda’s. As the world spun to a halt over these past two years, it’s a tradition that fans needed to see return as much as Showalter does.
Last week, Strand of Oaks were making their way through the midwest on a tour that reunited them with old friends Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. When I connected with Showalter, he and the rest of his band were trying to make up for some lost time and miles in their tour van as they trailed behind Isbel’s bus on their way to their next gig in East Moline, Illinois.
As frustrating as these logistical aspects are to touring, Showalter was still radiating from the energy that he got from reconnecting with some friends that he lost touch with over these last trying years. This feeling of rekindling connections that were once lost is one that permeates all throughout his fantastic new album “In Heaven.”
As Showalter sees it, he feels lucky that any of this is able to happen again. “I love playing these shows, but I just love people,” he says. “There’s literally a point on the new record where I say ‘I need humans,’ and it’s not poetry or metaphor. It’s a very blunt statement,” he adds, in reference to the In Heaven cut “Slipstream.”
“There’s people on Jason Isbell’s crew that I’ve known for seven or eight years and I just plain and simply missed them,” he explains, “It’s funny, as cosmic as I can get sometimes I think the more cosmic I get the more simplified it gets. There’s less need to over-explain. The deeper you travel into your subconscious the more you think, ‘I miss people. I love having friends and I love talking.’”
Songs like “Slipstream” and the opener “Galacticana” are both inspired by this overwhelming need to reach out to those in his life. But on songs like the rousing “Jimi & Stan” and “Somewhere in Chicago,” Showlater thinks of those important artistic forces we have lost and how they have altered our orbit in the brief moments they walked the earth. “Somewhere in Chicago” deals with the passing of one of Showalter’s biggest heroes, the legendary folk-singer John Prine ,who passed away from complications related to the coronavirus in the the spring of 2020.
“I just wanted to take all that stuff that was obviously sad and just move it to [a feeling of] thankfulness,” says Showalter of his love for Prine’s music, “I wish I would have known him, I think I think I could have learned a lot from him. But I learned so much just from his music. When the blues would come my way, I would put his stuff on and he didn’t make you turn your head away from the sadness. He made you look at it as a part of being alive. It happens.”
As Showalter and his band make their way across the country, he is certain that all of these feelings will be explored when he makes his return to the stage at Johnny Brenda’s.
He started his annual Winter Classic back in 2015 at the Boot & Saddle as a way to play loose solo sets that allowed him to change course at a moment’s notice to offer fans deep cuts and fun covers without the strict confines of a full band show. With the South Philly venue now shuttered, Showalter found a brand new home for the tradition at Fishtown’s cozy Johnny Brenda’s, which he has had a rich history of playing over the last 12 years or so.
Even though he and his wife moved to Austin, Texas, a couple years ago, the Indiana native lived in Philly for decades. It’s where he cut his teeth as a songwriter and where he feels Strand of Oaks will always be from in his heart.
“I don’t know what I did in my life to deserve Philadelphia. It’s a city that you want to love you and you have to earn that respect and love,” says Showalter with overflowing adulation. “When I got to the place where I realized that Philadelphia accepted me as one of their own, it was one of the proudest moments of my life because that city made me who I was. Strand of Oaks will always be from Philadelphia. No matter if I live on an island somewhere, I’m still going to think of Strand of Oaks as a Philly band and I never want that to change. So, I’m just honored that I can do these shows and especially that we can keep on going.”