Live Review: Strand Of Oaks, Carl Broemel, Joe Pug, Philadelphia, Dec. 6, 2018

Strand Of Oaks’ annual Winter Classic turned four this year, and MAGNET’s M.J. Fine (words) and Chris Sikich (photos) braved the Philly cold to join in the celebration

As December traditions go, Strand Of Oaks’ Winter Classic is a balm, a refuge, a relief and a respite. No matter what it sounds like outside Philly’s Boot & Saddle—whether it’s the savagely sappy and overly produced Christmas tunes that permeate nearly every public space or the self-induced stress of cramming for inevitably incomplete end-of-the-year critics lists—onstage, it’s Tim Showalter and whichever confederates he’s assembled, playing whatever they want. Untethered to promotional cycles, the annual three-day event traffics in cherished tunes and unexpected treats, both a celebration of surviving another year and a booster shot for the dark days ahead.

On the first night of Winter Classic IV, which ran December 6-8, those treats included “Passing Out” (from the Hard Love offshoot Harder Love), a tender new song about Showalter’s wife, a lovely version of “Last To Swim” (off Pope Killdragon) and a pair of melancholy covers: Beck’s “The Golden Age” and Songs: Ohia’s “The Gray Tower,” with the late Jason Molina’s guitar doing the heavy lifting on the latter as both totem and tool. (It’s one of two songs Goshen Electric Co.—Showalter fronting Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co.—released last month on a Secretly Canadian seven-inch.)

Showalter’s companions for all three shows were singer/songwriters Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) and Joe Pug, who contributed affable solo sets and solid support. Each brought a cheering section of sorts, but it was the charismatic Showalter who commanded the small stage. Joined for the first five songs by Broemel and flanked for the last five by both Broemel and Pug, with four solo numbers in the middle, Showalter was clearly the star, even as he sought to cede the spotlight by playing backup on a couple of his temporary bandmates’ own tunes in the main set: Pug took the lead on “Hymn #101” and Broemel on “Carried Away.” Either might’ve been a highlight in another context, and “Carried Away” may well be beloved by My Morning Jacket fans who’ve heard it from their lawn seats. But it was Strand Of Oaks’ own intimate epics that once again proved to be the reason for the Winter Classic season.

There was “JM,” the brutal but ultimately transcendent reminder of how Molina’s songs helped Showalter make it through his formative years, yet weren’t sufficient to save Molina himself. There was “Radio Kids,” a slightly lighter but no less incandescent ode to the permanent marks left by fleeting sounds. And there was “Goshen ’97,” in its rightful place as closer, winding us up with the sing-along refrain of “I don’t want to start all over again.” A gleeful Showalter had us sing it until we were hoarse, and it kept ringing in our ears as we walked back through the sweaty bar into the chilly night, ready to do it all again the next night. Or, at least, next year.

Like a song that’s stayed with you from relationship to relationship, job to job, apartment to apartment, Winter Classic V will be totally different, yet no doubt perfect in its own way.