By Sean Titone
Photo: Cora Wagoner
April 26, 2018
Along the banks of the Cooper River in North Charleston, South Carolina, Riverfront Park was the setting last weekend for another sold-out High Water Festival. Charleston-based Shovels & Rope, the longtime married musical duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, played the role yet again of hosts and curators, giving this fest an organic vibe that felt familial and rarely corporate like so many big business music festivals these days. When they weren’t performing with their own band or Shrimp Records Family Band (their Charleston musical collective of friends), they could often be seen to the side of the stage, sometimes with their young daughter in a wagon, smiling and enjoying the performances just like the rest of us.
Not only are they kick-ass musicians who like to bring a ruckus, they are also fans of great, soul-nourishing music and believe in fostering a sense of community, bringing positivity into the world, and investing in the city they call home. But, they weren’t the only ones supporting fellow Charleston artists over the weekend. A good barometer of the current Charleston music scene is that the final three bands of the weekend, Shovels & Rope, Susto and Band of Horses, are all locals. Up-and-coming alt-country outfit Susto is so revered by Band of Horses that lead singer Ben Bridwell, in keeping with the familial spirit, covered the Susto song “Hard Drugs” during their closing set and invited Susto’s Justin Osborne on stage to sing it with them.
There are many factors that go into making a music festival a positive memory for those in attendance. As much as it is about the music and the artists, it’s also about the personality of the crowd, the food, the drinks, the geographic setting, and the hundreds of people working the event, from vendors to security to production staff who ensure everything goes smoothly for the fans. For the second year in a row, all of those things worked in sync for an extremely pleasurable experience.
The food at the Refuge, which included a variety of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike, was mouthwateringly good and a cut above your standard festival fare with highlights including deep-fried garlic shoyu Brussels sprouts from Herd Provisions and Chicken and Waffles with sweet and spicy syrup from Corn Dog Inc. Craft cocktails and free afternoon samplings from partners like Ghost Pines wines, Mother Rosé, and Four Roses Bourbon, along with a Tito’s Vodka DIY Bloody Mary bar were refreshing and didn’t put much of a strain on the wallet.
From the low country boil Friday night that kicked off the event to Band of Horses’ final shimmering guitar strums on Sunday night, good vibes were plentiful. Everybody we encountered throughout the weekend just seemed happy. Happy to brush off the drudgery of real life and responsibility for a couple days. Happy to share a blanket with a stranger. Happy that there was a constant breeze coming off the water and the temperature never rose above 75 degrees for the entire, rain-free weekend. Happy to be sharing memories that will last a lifetime.
Here were some of our favorite moments:
St. Paul and the Broken Bones (Saturday, Stono Stage)
Birmingham, Alabama’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones have been a righteous force on the festival circuit for the past few years now, and their set on Saturday was one of pure joy. Paul Janeway has the voice, moves and enough charisma to power one of the many giant freight ships that passed through the river over the weekend. Memorable moments included a buoyant and longing cover of Tame Impala’s “Eventually” and Janeway disappearing under the drum riser, only to find himself wrapped up in the stage flooring like a James Brown burrito while belting out the dramatic, vocal powerhouse “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.”
Brandi Carlile (Saturday, Stono Stage)
Brandi Carlile is currently touring behind her excellent, Dave Cobb-produced album “By The Way, I Forgive You.” She and her band blazed through standouts like “The Joke” which featured a string section, while her intimate tale of new motherhood “The Mother” caused some tears to flow in the massive audience gathered at the Stono Stage. Before that song, Carlile talked about the importance of being on the road and speaking her truth as a gay woman who is married with two kids, and through her flawless storytelling and songwriting, she illustrated that we are so much more alike than we are different and urged all in attendance to not let others divide us.
Jeff Tweedy (Saturday, Edisto Stage)
With his band Wilco on a brief hiatus, Jeff Tweedy has been touring solo, serenading audiences with songs from his extensive catalog, going as far back as his Uncle Tupelo days, while also road-testing several new songs. During a magical sunset performance, High Water attendees were treated to all of the above and Tweedy seemed in good spirits while the audience was mostly hushed and respectful. Nearly every song prompted a sing along, and as it turned out, we collectively provided a pretty decent chorus. On one new song, “Let’s Go Rain,” Tweedy suggested there should be another biblical-level flood to wash away all the sinners wreaking havoc on us all, and, I have to say, I think he’s onto something.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit (Saturday, Edisto Stage)
Jason Isbell and his top-notch band The 400 Unit gave us a show worthy of their headlining status that combined the best parts of rock, folk and country into an intoxicating blend. It was a special bonus that Amanda Shires was able to join them (she’s often on tour headlining shows of her own), as her fiddle playing and singing enhanced the proceedings greatly.
Valerie June (Sunday, Stono Stage)
There was so much wisdom and grace in Valerie June’s set. Her folk and blues-influenced songs and in-between banter were spiritual, enlightening and, in their own way, a form of church for those gathered at High Water on an early Sunday afternoon. It was a blessing to be in her presence as she told us a story about the origin of one of her most popular songs, “Astral Plane,” and she left us with the advice of not letting anyone dim our light because our souls are unique and powerful.
Tank and the Bangas (Sunday, Stono Stage)
Tank and the Bangas are a band on the rise and definitely one to watch. A New Orleans group that launched into the national spotlight after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017, they have evolved into a massive live band that brings a New Orleans street vibe, as well as loads of heart and emotion. Of all the sets over the weekend, theirs was the most electric and the crowd fed off that energy, creating a lively, never-ending dance party. Elements of hip-hop, rock, jazz, and soul were thrown into the mix and Tank showed off some legit rap skills. At times, especially on the song, “Oh Heart,” it felt like I was watching a vibrant cousin to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. In an unexpected end to their show, they segued into the famous opening riffs of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before actually playing nearly half the song in a loud, faithful rendition, and it was like a powder keg had ignited the audience, causing the crowd to jump up and down in a wild frenzy. It was a jaw-dropping performance, and I guarantee you will have a good time the next time they come through your town.
Susto (Sunday, Edisto Stage)
Charleston’s Susto has been steadily rising to prominence over the last few years with a rigorous tour schedule and high profile support slots for bands like The Lumineers and Band of Horses. After touring the world non-stop since the release of their sophomore album And I’m Fine Today in January 2017, their sunset slot on Sunday felt like a triumphant homecoming. The five-piece band covered a lot of sonic territory and the hometown crowd showed them lots of love by singing along to nearly every song.
Learn more about High Water Festival in North Charleston.