High Water Fest in Charleston already feels like tradition– a reunion of musical past and sounds of the future

By Cameron Lee

April 28, 2022

Photo: Charles Reagan

For many music lovers in South Carolina familiar with Riverfront Park in North Charleston, the walk through the eerie old Naval Base feels surreal. Worn and haunted-looking warehouses and buildings eventually lead to pristine 19th century homes and massive grand Angel Oak trees with the twinkle of the sun reflecting off the Cooper River in the distance. It’s a site that may seem familiar for many who have experienced another waterfront festival in Rhode Island (Newport Folk Festival), but High Water Fest is slowly building its own mystique. 

Aerial shot of High Water Fest 2022 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Nathan Zucker

The fourth-year festival, curated by husband and wife folk rock music duo Shovels & Rope (Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent), made its return last weekend after a three-year hiatus, and it’s almost as if the music gods kissed our foreheads with the sun and well-timed breezes to make up for lost time. The festival sold out all 15,000 tickets for each day of the two-day event that saw Blues rocker Jack White, fabled soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples, indie rock outfit Modest Mouse, “gothic country” singer-songwriter Adia Victoria, and many more. With two stages (Edisto and Stono) positioned on each half of the park, the weekend was a splendid musical seesaw of mostly folk-leaning rock ‘n’ roll. 

High Water Fest 2022 at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. Photo: Charles Reagan

While many moved from one stage to the other, there were factions perfectly content listening to some of the acts from a distance. With a sturdy sound and stage setup by festival producers AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo) and C3 Presents (Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits Music Festival), the music was still the highlight of the weekend, although there were diversions. Over twenty food vendors lined up in the shadows of the giant oak trees, including mouth-watering lobster rolls by And Lobster, wok-fried Hawaiian-style soba noodles by Island Noodles, Mediterranean flavors by Verde, and music festival favorites Roti Rolls. There was even a full-service fine dining seafood restaurant, MOMO, inside the festival grounds. Anchored boats swayed and a few palm trees lined the Cooper River offering a scenic backdrop ideal for social media posting and pictures. 

Lobster roll by Charleston food truck, And Lobster. Photo: Nathan Zucker

And while the charm of the South was gleaming over the weekend, it’s the music at High Water that feels spiritual at times. In the festival’s inaugural year, indie folk supergroup Middle Brother– consisting of Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, John McCauley of Deer Tick, and Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit– reunited. Charles Bradley sang a heart-wrenching cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” before he unfortunately passed in 2017, and Paul Janeway performed a divine rendition of Tame Impala’s “Eventually” in 2018. Providing both a charming and grand platform for all of the artists, the festival also focuses on up-and-coming Black artists who have often been overlooked in predominantly white-dominated musical genres like folk and rock. Memphis singer-songwriter Valerie June awed attendees in 2018 with an emotional speech and performance, helping to further catapult her career. 

Aerial shot of High Water Fest 2022 at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. Photo: Grant Hodgeon

This year, there were more moments that validated why they call Charleston the “Holy City.” Singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah covered a stirring version of Alabama folk singer Vera Hall’s 1937 song “Trouble So Hard,” and the venerable Mavis Staples preached to the masses during a musical transition, culminating in a halfway serious but charming announcement running for president of the United States. The 82-year-old singer, who was recently featured in Quest Love’s Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul, performed a timely rendition of another song from a documentary that many festival-goers were probably more familiar with, The Last Waltz. After covering The Band’s “The Weight,” a song that Staples and her sisters (The Staples Singers) performed nearly 50 years ago for the mythical concert film, Staples and her band swayed like the ocean waves for their 1972 hit song, “I’ll Take You There.” 

Mavis Staples performing on Sunday at High Water Fest. Photo: Nathan Zucker

Among the other musical highlights from the weekend were the two sunset performances on Saturday (Modest Mouse) and Sunday (Black Pumas) that showcased an alluring orange hue from behind the Stono stage as the crowds packed in closer toward the end of each night. Palm Palm, the new musical project of Richmond’s J. Roddy Walston provided a lively early set on Sunday with a cover of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Vasoline” and Sharon Van Etten performed a gripping version of her 2019 song, “Seventeen.” 

Jack White closed out High Water Fest with a dynamic 21-song. Photo: Charles Reagan

The headliners also didn’t disappoint. The voice of My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James glided through the night skies on Saturday and gracious festival hosts Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent blessed us with their foot-stomping harmonies prior to the final set on Sunday. Jack White capped off the weekend performing a dynamic 21-song set featuring plenty of White Stripes songs and even a couple from his other side project, The Raconteurs (“You Don’t Understand Me” and “Carolina Drama”). 

While High Water Fest has only been in existence since 2017, it already feels like a tradition– a reunion of musical past and sounds of the future, and just some old-fashioned fun. The backdrop may reel many into the shores of Charleston in April each year, but it’s certainly the music that will keep you coming back. 

Learn more about High Water Fest in North Charleston, South Carolina at Riverfront Park.


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