Last weekend’s inaugural High Water Festival in North Charleston, SC saw a lineup stacked with 24 bands that are a who’s who of the Americana, Folk, Roots and indie Country scene (The Avett’s, Dawes, Deer Tick and Margo Price to name a few). Oh yeah, and The Shins, the musical outlier on the roster but one of the highlights of the weekend. The combination of Charleston’s own Shovels & Rope, who created the festival and curated the lineup, and the production prowess of AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo, Forecastle, etc) made for an inaugural festival with both an enviable roster and an incredibly well run experience. Shovels & Rope deserve huge kudos for what they’ve created and High Water looks to become a mainstay on the spring festival circuit. I only have 2 requests: that it doesn’t get any bigger (an estimated 10,000 tickets were sold) and that they mix up the lineup a little bit more. I could have used a bit more rock and roll! My Top Ten favorite things about High Water probably reflects that. There’s not a lot on the list that focuses on the headliners. Ya’ll know them. What’s below are the things that made High Water unique and special for me with some (amateur, for sure!) pics to accompany.
- The Location.The best thing about High Water Festival just might be the location. Riverfront Park in North Charleston is nestled up against the point where The Cooper River meets Noisette Creek, offering a stunning backdrop, cool breezes (at some points during the heat of the day, just moving 20 feet closer to the water made all the difference) and a space that feels both large and small at the same time (Charlestonians in the know anchored their boats just off the main stage area in the Cooper River). The grounds are part of the former Charleston Naval Complex, surrounded by empty warehouses that seem ripe for development. But the inner part of the festival was really well laid out and a quick walk to get anywhere. With no overlapping bands, you could literally see all 24 performances over the two days. The grounds are about 20 minutes from the Charleston Historic District and our group made time to go down each morning for brunch or lunch and hit the festival at about 2pm which made for a really nice weekend experience as I feel like I got my Charleston “fix” in. There seemed to be a good Savannah crowd represented. I know I ran into at least 20 people I knew throughout the weekend.
- Matthew Logan Vasquez. The lead singer of Delta Spirit just released his 2nd eponymous album last week and has spent a good chunk of the past year opening for Shovels & Rope on tour. His full band set on Sunday afternoon stole the weekend for me with a 5 piece band (adorned in matching flowered shirts and coonskin hats) that tore the roof off the Edisto Stage. John McCauley of Deer Tick and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes joined the band for several songs which effectively constituted a reunion of the beloved supergroup Middle Brother. Kam Franklin of Suffers also guest slotted for a song. Whiskey bottles on stage, a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and enough bro-love from the Middle Brother three that one can only pray another album might see the light of day. Bottom line- this set kicked ass.
- The Luck Reunion Sessions/Ranky Tanky. Luck Reunion is Willie Nelson’s annual festival at his ranch in Luck, TX and the team behind it have branched out into producing intimate recording sessions with unique musical pairings in cool spaces, including some stellar sessions at last year’s Americana Fest. For High Water, the recordings took place in the Eternal Father of The Sea Chapel on the festival grounds. The common thread among all the sessions was Ranky Tanky, a Charleston based 5 piece band that is keeping the Gullah music traditions alive with a powerful and passionate blend of soul, gospel, jazz and all the traditions of Gullah. The recording artists they were paired with included David Ramirez, Shovels & Rope, Kam Franklin from The Suffers and Langhorne Slim. I can’t wait to see the videos of these sessions. They should be posted in about a week.
- Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires. This was Bradley’s first show back after announcing that he had been diagnosed with Stomach cancer last fall. While he was noticeably thinner, his voice was as strong as ever and his great big musical heart was out there sharing the love as always. It was a special moment to see this beloved man take the stage again in such fine form.
- The Shins. Fresh off of the release of their 5th album Heartworms in March, The Shins added a wonderful dose of indie rock as the festival’s headliner on Saturday night. Featuring a 6 piece band supporting James Mercer, The Shins ripped through a 90 minute set that relied heavily on their back catalogue of fan favorites which, let’s be honest, is exactly what the crowd wanted. Different arrangements on songs like “Gone For Good” and “Kissing The Lipless” were a surprise that I’m still on the fence about. And at times, the night breeze seemed to carry Mercer’s vocals a little off course, particularly in his lower register (I could barely hear him on new standout track “Mildenhall”) but that’s a nit-pick. Any chance to see The Shins play hit after hit after hit on a beautiful Carolina night is like a gift from God.
- Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. I have friends who rave about this band but their studio offerings are a bit more mainstream than my tastes typically run. Not so for the live performance which was one of my favorite surprises of the weekend. Rateliff’s band is a horn centered 7 piece extravaganza and his voice, which can veer back and forth between the New Orleans inflected rumble of a Dr. John and the smooth croon of a Van Morrison, feels more raw and real in a live setting. I got hooked.
- The Low Tide Social. It was a last minute ticket opportunity that found me on Route 17 on Friday afternoon heading toward Charleston for the Friday night High Water pre-festival event called “The Low Tide Social” which included a traditional low country boil and performances from Charleston’s Ranky Tanky, Langhorne Slim and the great Lucinda Williams who played to a crowd of less than 200 people on the lawn of an old Naval Captain’s home just adjacent to the festival grounds. It was the first night of Lucinda’s tour in support of her new record The Ghost of Highway 20, and she and her long time band were on fire. I’ve never heard her sound better. It was an emotional roller coaster for the audience, all the way from tears on “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles”, to all out fist pumps and dancing on “Changed The Locks” and “Joy”. With a set list and encore that were 22 songs deep, this event alone, which felt like a private party, was worth the trip.
- Aaron Lee Tasjan. Can PLAY the guitar! I saw Tasjan do a solo show at 2016’s Bragg Jam Festival in Macon but seeing his full band perform at High Water turned my head around. Known for his flashy suits and stable of hats,Tasjan is a modern day Rhinestone Cowboy who writes beautiful songs that defy genre categorization… and boy can he shred.
- The Deslondes. A New Orleans band that has long been on my list of acts to try to catch. They brought some levity and foot stomping to Sunday afternoon with cajun inspired country twang that was loose and loud and a whole lot of fun. Mandatory two-stepping kind of fun.
- The Food. Yep, the food. “The Refuge” was the shaded area of the fest to hang out, grab a bite to eat and chill. There were 12 different food trucks and booths if I counted them right and everything I ate was delicious; from Diggity Donuts to Charleston’s beloved Roti Rolls and the most fantastic festival pizza I’ve ever had from Pizza Nova (they go to festivals all over the south!). A great variety of cuisines (Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern), good veggie options, lines that moved pretty quickly and prices that, while not cheap, were not outrageous (can’t say the same for booze- Beer at $8, Wine at $11 and cocktails at $12-13 were STEEP). It wasn’t the all-southern food I was expecting but it was darn good festival chow.
A few more random pics below!