Made in Philly rock acts feel the heat

Strand of Oaks is the nominal alter ego of Tim Showalter.
Strand of Oaks is the nominal alter ego of Tim Showalter.
Posted: July 25, 2014

FOR SURE, having a fresh and striking vision is the first step to stardom in rock and roll. But it's also important to have a nurturing atmosphere: family and friends who support, fellow musicians and well-placed industry bigs who believe.

Two apt cases in point - the Districts and Strand of Oaks - will demonstrate all the above this weekend at the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden. Two of the most anticipated acts on the bill, and both now calling Philly home, they'll comingle with noted imports like Beck, Ryan Adams, Dawes, Old '97s, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ingrid Michaelson and James Cotton.

Strand of Oaks, alter ego of Timothy Showalter, earns a prime showcase midafternoon Saturday (3:05-3:45 p.m.) in Wiggins Park. The Districts get to open the Sunday evening (7:15 p.m.) Susquehanna Bank Center bill for Band of Horses and festival closer Beck.

Early supporters at festival stagers WXPN (88.5 FM) are looking prescient. After presenting the Districts and Strand of Oaks first on the "Philly Local" and online "Folkadelphia" shows, 'XPN more recently exposed both to radio pros attending the Non-Comm broadcasters convention at World Cafe Live, with both acts winning a roaring response.

Last month, 'XPN touted Strand of Oaks as its "artist to watch" for the stunning new "Heal" album.

The Districts are popping up on other radio stations and lots of festival bills, said front guy Robby Groten. (Dial in their spunky "Telephone" album free at

And with super-positive buzz greeting "Heal" - also jump-started by "Fresh Air" and Pitchfork - as a work of uncommon honesty and vigor, Showalter and his newly hatched concert band are looking toward "almost a solid year of touring, here and abroad," he said.

Getting here from there

In theory, school bells brought both bands here, with the Lititz-spawned Districts planning to matriculate last fall at Temple University after renting a house together in North Philly.

The band members never made it to class.

"Truth is, we wanted to continue making music, as we had through high school, and Philly seemed a good place to do it," said Groten, whose shockingly powerful pipes and "unintentional" (he claims) mush-mouthed delivery put him in a league with classic belters, such as Robert Plant.

Not all has proceeded smoothly in the District, though. Guitarist Mark Larson is exiting after Sunday's show to go back to school.

And last month it took a village to bail out the guys when their van was stolen in St. Louis. Tour mates Dr. Dogg lent gear. Friends ferried them to gigs. An Indiegogo campaign raised $7,000 from fans to repair the recovered but heavily damaged vehicle. And instrument maker Gibson generously stepped up with replacement guitars 'n' bass.

"The community support has been amazing," said Districts manager Marley McNamara.

Mighty Oaks

Tim Showalter has also taken a circuitous route to and through Philly musicland.

A spiritually-minded kid from Indiana who came here more than a decade ago to attend Catholic-centric Eastern University, in St. Davids, he quickly skipped out "when I found out I couldn't bring girls to my room," he shared, with a laugh.

Showalter relocated to Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, and graduated to a teaching gig at an Orthodox Jewish day school in the town while moonlighting in music making.

In Wilkes-Barre, he home-grew the first in a series of acoustic, folkie albums showcasing his heart-tugging voice and lonely-in-the-crowd autobiographical nature, the aptly named "Leave Ruin."

When Showalter's wife, Susan, wanted to return to Philadelphia for postgrad studies at Drexel and a job in medical publishing, Tim was happy to pursue his muse in Mt. Airy.

"She pays the rent and allows me to be Peter Pan," he said.

On "Heal," the missus has allowed the always confession-minded Showalter to reveal some less-than-storybook-perfect details from their hot- and cold-running romance.

"All true, with no casting of blame," he vowed.

Sue's father, a lifelong professional musician, helped them negotiate the rocks. "And thankfully we've survived," Tim Showalter said. "It's all made us stronger."

In the same spirit, Showalter is finally sharing his semi-repressed rock guitar licks in full-borne fashion on "Heal." The flourishing jams with a raw immediacy (and newly adopted band) recall "major influence" Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and energize the tunes even when subject matter is bleak.

"I'm the least talented musician onstage," Showalter confessed. "Lucky for me, Philly has some really amazing players. That's why so much good music is breaking out of here now."

XPoNential Music Festival, Wiggins Park and Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, tonight through Sunday, three-day Go Everywhere pass $140, $70 WXPN members; three-day Wiggins/Garden pass $110, $55; one-day Wiggins/Garden pass $60, $30; ages 2-12 one-day pass $5, 800-745-3000,

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