ROCKVILLE CENTRE, NY—On Feb. 7, 2015, Strand Of Oaks, Timothy Showalter’s biography as rock ‘n’ roll band, played to a sold-out audience at Cannon’s Blackthorn in Rockville Centre, NY. Opening with “Heal,” a mid-tempo Tom Petty-esque rocker about youthful pain, Showalter and co. worked their way to the buoyant closer, a cover of The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton.” On their new album, HEAL, the songs are imbued with a lo-fi, somewhat homespun sound, a move made in effort to invoke the ideas of memory and nostalgia present within the lyrics. Live, stripped of such aesthetics, they take on a new life. “Goshen” and “Shut In” benefit particularly well live, as they’re made over into true rock gems, complete with blazing guitars and propulsive drumming.
Much has been made of Showalter’s rock star aspirations, and this is never more evident than in the way he conducts the band. Cobbled together from friends in the Philadelphia area, the touring version of Strand Of Oaks is a precise machine that pulls off the amazing trick of being tight and professional while still creating a space for community and connection, encouraging sing-alongs and offering sincere gratitude in between sets. Showalter never missed the mark, either vocally—his voice is richer than ever while working through these beefed up versions—or instrumentally. The set was pure electric energy, and it went a long way to celebrating the man responsible for the event: Tommy Brull, a young man whose death led to the founding of a non-profit dedicated to helping those with mental or physical anguish.
Since this was an annual benefit show—one that’s been in existence since 2008—the relaxed and thoughtful atmosphere made sense. While Strand Of Oaks was certainly thoughtful, it was the looser set of The Felice Brothers that really brought the relaxed aspect out in spades. Jumping from plaintive numbers to outright barn-burners like “Whiskey In My Whiskey” or “Cherry Licorice,” the band channeled the uproarious fervor of acts like Flogging Molly before scaling it back, making for a consistent, if not repetitive, set. While crowd excitement ran high, the set was not without its issues. There were problems with lead singer Ian Felice’s vocal projection, as it often got lost and overpowered by the righteous sound of the instruments. The true highlights of the set were the perfect performances of violinst Greg Farley and accordionist/pianist James Felice. When the band entered into a song that meandered or was outright awkward—such as the appearance of a track from their electronic album, Celebration, Florida—Felice and Farley could smooth things over with their high energy and physical humor. The set grew long in the tooth toward the end, but the rustic sensibilities of the group were a beautiful contrast to the celebration rock of Strand Of Oaks.
Both acts played to a packed house and did their best to raise money for charity. While The Felice Brothers and Strand Of Oaks couldn’t be more different in their approach to the stage and their desire to connect with each person in the audience, it didn’t seem to matter. Passing by the merch table on my way out, I heard one couple share that they commute to the show from Canada every year. “Martin Brull picks such unique acts for ‘Shine A Light.’ We’d come even if he had The Eagles and a singing schizophrenic because we trust the quality that much.” Keep an eye out for the show next year, as there’s nothing else truly like it.