Live Review: High Water Festival 2019, Charleston, SC

If I could design my own festival then it would look much like High Water Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Compact and curated by local legends Shovels and Rope it appeals to grown ups who want a blissful weekend of diverse music. The joy of this well-organised festival is that staggered stage times allow you to see every artist on the bill – meaning there’s not a lull in proceedings the whole weekend. The site lay out is simple, easily navigated and offering space for everyone. Even the VIP section, which I am naturally opposed to, was set up in such a way as not to affect the rest of the crowd.

For me a two day festival is preferred to keep the energy and quality high but I did like the fact that High Water offered an optional Friday night show to ease you in to the weekend. This intimate event was called Low Tide Social and operated in a small part of the festival site, offering a taster of some of the bands playing at the main event (Shrimp Records Family Band and a guest spot from Shovels and Rope themselves) while also allowing some local acts (Garage Cuban Band and Cary Ann Hearst’s brilliant all-women bluegrass band The Marshgrass Mamas) a chance to shine. The highlight of the night was the hilarious and heartwarming set from The Marshgrass Mamas, who even brought out their newest member ten year old Rayna to join in with the hoedown.

The main event kicked off on Saturday afternoon with the lovely Lilly Hiatt, who rocked the cobwebs from the eyes of the growing crowd. Lilly had recorded her 2017 album Trinity Lane at Shovels and Rope’s studio in John’s Island and she said it was ‘special to be here’. Highlights of the set included the title track from that album and her love song ‘The Night David Bowie Died’. Since it was Record Store Day it was kind of fitting she had released a special split vinyl with her father John and also played her song ‘Records’ – an ode to those albums who keep you going whatever shit show life throws at you.

Michael Nau matched the afternoon vibe with his chilled out brand of stoner acoustic songs, before Butch Walker went for a more earnest and flamboyant brand of soft country rock. Then the Shrimp Records Family Band played again, showcasing a versatile array of local musicians who were joined by Michael Trent himself. Cary Ann Hearst came out later to blow us away with a solo song – her star power and incredible voice owning the stage with ease.

Next act The War and Treaty also know a lot about how to own the stage. Husband and wife duo Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter bring endless energy and effervescence which spills over into the crowd. The band take the opportunity to start their set with three new songs and I am delighted to report that their hot songwriting streak continues. In particular the song ‘Revival’ is a sure fire soul classic in the making. At one point the band talk of suicide prevention and ask us to reach out to each other, resulting in hugs and tears all round. They finish their awesome set by taking us ‘Down to the River’ and I know they are going to continue to wow audiences everywhere they go this year.

Blitzen Trapper were laidback in contrast, adding some welcome harmonica and Neil Young inspired sounds to the day. Then critic favourite Mitski took to the stage for her set which was part indie rock show, part performance art. At times her stage set of a white chair and desk seemed an inspired metaphor for her intense emotions, at other times it looked to be a distraction from the songs. But since distance and separation are central themes of her work you have to give her credit for pushing the boundaries of the typical indie rock show.

At a festival like this you sometimes just want to see a band have fun and enjoy themselves which is exactly what Phosphorescent did, playing songs from their recent album C’est La Vie. Their loose, heady songs were matched by the band’s freewheeling performance. A woman next to me described them as sounding like ‘Jimmy Buffet and the Avett Brothers had a baby’ which is a pretty perfect way to sum them up.

Then I decided to sacrifice Lord Huron (sorry) so I could hit the front row for Jenny Lewis who entered the stage looking like a sparkling mermaid queen. She brought her gorgeous stage set up from the recent variety show, adding glitz and glamour to the proceedings. Starting behind the piano with ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ and ‘Wasted Youth’, she kept the stage in darkness before heading to front of the stage podium for ‘The Big Guns’. Her new band worked well to build a cohesive sound to these mix of old and new solo songs, plus Rilo Kiley classics like ‘Silver Lining’. Everything sounded extra dramatic, especially ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ and ‘See Fernando’. A surprise of the night was a great stoner reggae-inspired version of ‘The Voyager’. Jenny finished her set with a perfection rendition of ‘With Arms Outstretched’ and the crowd sang along with every word. It was a dazzling dream brought to life.

Leon Bridges finished off the night with a stylish and slick performance, the perfect end to a Saturday of music to feed the soul.

Sunday began with The Secret Sisters, whose heartbreaking songs and warm stage presence start the day off right. Many of their songs are dedicated to the ex-boyfriend who broke singer Laura’s heart – she hopes he’s in a ditch somewhere or at least hearing her song on the radio. We have to thank him though, for inspiring some of the best songs of their career, including crowd pleaser ‘He’s Fine’. Since it’s Sunday they also take us to church on new song ‘Healer in the Sky’, dedicated to their two grandmothers who they lost to cancer. Finishing with the defiant anthem ‘You Don’t Own Me Anymore’, they remind us that the other side of the struggle really can be a beautiful place.

Putting some holy hellfire into the day are all girl Nashville dirt rockers Thelma and the Sleaze. They sing a set of badass songs about being born poor, giving head, finger banging, crackhead room mates and hating Donald Trump (if you can’t find something to enjoy in that list then you are at the wrong show). It’s a total blast from the start to the finish, when singer LG is carried across the crowd like the bastard queen of rock and roll she just proved herself to be.

One aim of High Water is to share the best of what the Lowcountry has to offer and they delivered on that promise with a Stono stage set from local heroes Ranky Tanky. Specialising in modern jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional Gullah music, the band get the crowd shaking and raising their hands to the skies. Singer Quiana Parler has an incredible voice but all members of the band bring energy and enthusiasm, as well as impressive musicianship. This excellent set proved there really is no place like home.

Lera Lynn arrives as storm crowds start to brood above our heads. Her dark, hypnotic music suits the weather too, adding some sophistication to the proceedings. Highlights of her set are ‘In Another Life’ and ‘Nothing to Do With Your Love’, both from her excellent ‘Plays Well With Others‘ album. Her t-shirt read ‘Hammer Strength’ and you really saw this confident mood reflected in her newer, rockier songs and her excellent cover of TV on the Radio’s ‘Wolf Like Me’.

Alt-country Texan troubadour Hayes Carll is fresh from releasing his new album ‘What It Is’ – one of the best of the year (and his career). His set is warmly received by an appreciative crowd with highlights including ‘Jesus and Elvis’ – written for a soldier who died in Vietnam and ‘Times Like These’ about trying to hold onto hope despite the dire state of the world right now. He introduces ‘Kmag Yoyo’ with a story about a hallucinating soldier and an ironic comment about appealing to mainstream country radio. The music industry might be brutal for independent artists but this set (and festival) proves that there will always be a crowd who want to hear the truth from talented musicians such as Carll and his band.

Dr Dog perform a fun and infectious show before festival curators and local legends Shovels and Rope are welcomed onto the stage to a rapturous roar from the crowd. The performance is the first for the band in six months, since the birth of their baby. Michael takes off his shoes to get more comfortable – this is their home stage, after all. Many of the best moments of the set come from their blistering new album ‘By Blood’ including ‘Mississippi Nuthin’ and ‘The Wire’ which both sound freakin’ fantastic. Another highlight is ‘Carry Me Home’ an epic anthem that’s as good as anything they’ve ever sung (which is really saying something).

Before they leave the stage Cary Ann takes a moment to thank everyone involved in the making of the festival and reminds us about the charities who will benefit from the proceeds made. The crowd offer thanks and appreciation in return, hollering for the band to return long after they leave the stage. This High Water home they’ve built was a perfect place for the band to launch the new album and give fans a chance to celebrate their return.

At the end of the evening headliners The Head and the Heart finished their set by bringing back out Preservation Hall Jazz band (who had played an impressive set earlier in the day) for a stirring version of ‘Rivers and Roads’. As a lone boat sailed off into the distance and the crowd headed for the highway, it was a fitting end to a perfect weekend.

Until we meet again, High Water.


Parts of this review originally appeared online at Charleston City Paper  ❤

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