Strand of Oaks | Photo by Chris Sikich |

Before the first of two sold-out homecoming shows for Strand of Oaks on Friday at Boot & Saddle, I briefly told Oaks’ leader, Timothy Showalter, how much I loved the record and how excited I was for the show. Returning my handshake, Showalter reciprocated his excitement for what was to come with a beaming smile and utter giddiness. This genuine excitement for the performance was palpable throughout his band’s 75-minute set. It was a sea of joy and pathos, misery and head banging; it was rock of the highest order.

Showalter is the near-perfect balance of ferocity and gentleness. With his mane of hair, both on his head and face, prominent tattoos and sleeveless shirt, not to mention a stare that could shake a tree to tears, he wants the listener to know he is not fucking around. And then the hard rock façade melts away into genuine pain and ruminations. His guts are spilled in the brilliance of “Goshen ’97” (certainly one of the best rock songs of 2014 and quite possibly the millennium) and “Heal,” among others. Showalter shook his head and hair while his words and guitar chords were met with cheers, sing-alongs, handclaps and the love of his fans.

Showalter has a great cast of characters to round out Strand of Oaks’ sound. Bassist Deven Craige (whose family was in attendance, apparently traveling in a party bus), keyboard player/harmony singer Eliza Hardy Jones and drummer Michael Sneeringer guided the emotions of the songs and the audience in many directions. “JM” is haunted by their beats while “Sterling” displayed how the added dimensions of bass and drums greatly complement Showalter’s lyrics. (“Sterling” began with just Showalter and Jones, with Craige and Sneeringer joining halfway through the song to up the tempo and muscularity of the song.)

It was a night of music at its finest in Philadelphia. Showalter declared that he’s lived in the city since 2001 and considers it his home. How lucky we are to have him and Strand of Oaks. May they thrive and grow to greater heights. Their European tour, which begins Sept. 27, will solidify their talents in the ears of many more. But we’ll always have this sublime music memory from one of the best packed rooms around.

Christopher Denny opened with a thoughtful solo folk set.