Opening with the eponymous song off their fourth album HEAL, Strand of Oaks took the stage at The Highdive on Tuesday night for a triumphant Champaign return. It was clear from his smile and energy that frontman Tim Showalter was in his element. Never has a musician looked so at home onstage and so happy to be there. That was surprising given the fact that his voice wasn’t up to full strength. Showalter told the audience he had to get a steroid shot the night before the show to help his vocal chords produce sound.
While any health issue involving voice could affect so many things – performance, energy, attitude – Showalter didn’t let it get in the way of delivering a heartfelt performance. His sheer physical excitement enveloped the room. This was a man with a new musical lease on life, taking risks and experimenting in a way that was creatively paying off for not only the audience, but for him as well.
With the addition of keyboard player Eliza Hardy-Jones, bassist Deven Craige and drummer Mike Sneeringer, all the songs became more fully realized. The keys added a softer touch, bringing a sweeter and fuller melody to the show. It’s not as though the songs somehow lost their heavier rock edge, but the keys provided a necessary tonal juxtaposition so that Showalter could build in emotional guitar crescendos. The rhythm and tempo for many of the songs, as well as the heavier guitar and bass, all came together to unearth a deeper emotion. It’s hard to shake the feeling that these instruments were doing a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, and doing it so very well.
Strand of Oaks played a mix of new and old songs. After opening with “Heal,” they launched directly into “Same Emotions,” before jumping into “Goshen ’97,” increasing the energy and pace even more. They most succeeded in their lengthier realizations of HEAL’s songs, often taking a four minute song to an eight minute performance replete with powerful and poignant guitar work.
Eventually, Showalter performed an acoustic song with Hardy-Jones adding harmonies, her voice catching his at the exact moment, the two perfectly paired. During the second acoustic song, “Woke Up to the Light,” Hardy-Jones played keys, rounding out Showalter’s guitar. Towards the song’s end, Craige and Sneeringer came back on stage for a thunderous finish.
The band usually didn’t break between songs; one bled into another, building an energetic and emotional flow that had the audience captivated. When they did stop, Showalter often quipped with people in the crowd. At one point he asked, “Does Champaign ever fight with Urbana?” Besides these funny moments, he couldn’t help expressing his sheer joy at playing, and playing in Champaign. He was excited to be there, to see the turnout, and to create a moment. Showalter readily admitted that they were “doing something a little different” this time around.
Between Showalter’s good-natured banter and palpable excitement, and Strand of Oaks’ instrumentally emotional performance, this was one heck of a Tuesday night.