By Sean Titone
April 29, 2017
It’s often said that a wedding is the only time in your life when every single person you cherish, all of your closest family and friends through the years, will be in one place together in a celebration of a perfect union. For the two people getting hitched and all of their guests, that weekend experience is an uninhibited, special joy that is hard to top. In the Lowcountry of Charleston, South Carolina last weekend, acclaimed folk rock duo, married couple and local band done good Shovels & Rope put on a party with all of their musical friends and family that, for them, must have felt akin to having another wedding, just on a much larger scale.
High Water, a celebration of music, food and libations, made its debut amid good weather, good vibes, and a sense of community spirit. The artists on the bill were handpicked and curated by Shovels & Rope in collaboration with AC Entertainment who knows a thing or two about putting on a music festival (see: Bonnaroo, Forecastle). Situated in Riverfront Park on an old naval base that borders the Cooper River, it was hard not to feel like High Water could become the Newport Folk Festival of the South, as the performers on stage looked out across the grassy field to see revelers in various motorboats and sailboats out on the water enjoying the music. And those performers were a who’s who of the current Americana, folk, indie rock, and country scene with bands like Lucius, Dawes, John Moreland, The Avett Brothers, Margo Price, and The Shins all delivering powerhouse performances.
Tickets sold out quickly which is impressive for a first-year festival indicating there was local demand, although I spoke to people who had also traveled from Virginia, New York and Alabama, so it looks like Charleston has a world-class destination event on their hands. While it was sold out, the crowds seemed manageable all weekend and I didn’t hear people complaining about lines, so hopefully the organizers won’t get greedy and increase the number of people allowed for future installments. The food was plentiful and delicious, befitting a foodie town like Charleston. The choices were a variety of savory and sweet items (think Roti rolls, quirky doughnuts and jalapeno corn dogs) and could be found in a tree-lined area called The Refuge. There were oyster education classes, DIY Bloody Mary stations, bourbon root beer floats, and craft beer, wine and cocktails for those looking to imbibe. There was also a focus on local organizations like Charleston Waterkeeper, The Green Heart Project and Water Mission, all of which are valuable groups that are trying to enhance and preserve the quality of life in Charleston for future generations. Over at The Porch, a large covered tent, there were rotating taps of beers from local breweries like Holy City and Frothy Beard that ranged from popular favorites to rare offerings. If the sun got to be too much, festivalgoers could retreat to the shade of the Porch or the Refuge to cool off.
In the end, we were all able to #staydry, a phrase as common to locals as hello and goodbye in an often flood-prone section of the country, as the rain held off until late into Sunday night after The Avett Brothers had already sent us home with their always energetic set.
Here were some of the highlights of the weekend, in no particular order:
Charles Bradley’s Triumphant Return
Daptone Records recording artist Charles Bradley had to cancel a fall tour last year after a cancerous tumor was discovered in the 67-year-old singer’s stomach. Now in recovery, his triumphant return to the stage with his band The Extraordinaires was as powerful as it was emotional. The audience danced and cried along with Bradley who was clearly very thankful to be back on stage. We basked in the glow of The Screaming Eagle of Soul as he tore through songs like “Changes” and “You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know)” off his most recent album, Changes. Over the course of the day, several other performers commented about how lucky we were that he was healthy again and back doing his thing. Here’s to many more shows down the road.
Margo Price’s Outlaw Spirit
Rising Nashville star Margo Price brought killer songs, an outlaw spirit, and a tight band with a smoking pedal steel player to the Stono Stage on Saturday. She won over the crowd with a set of songs that felt both modern and retro, and her versatile voice conjured the spirits of some of country music’s finest bad-asses.
Middle Brother Reunion
When Dawes, Deer Tick, and Matthew Logan Vasquez were announced for the inaugural High Water lineup, it left many hoping for a Middle Brother reunion. And during Vasquez’s raucous performance at the Edisto Stage on Sunday, those dreams came true when Taylor Goldsmith and John McCauley sauntered on stage in the middle of his set to deliver high-octane versions of “Blue Eyes” and “Theatre,” two Vasquez-penned tunes from their self-titled 2011 album. Seeing these three on stage together may have prompted the loudest cheers of the weekend. New album, guys?
Deer Tick Play New Material, Announce Two New Albums in September
“This is only our 4th show over the last several months, so we’re a little rusty,” John McCauley told us towards the beginning of their set. If that was the case, I don’t think anyone in the crowd noticed or cared. Playing as a stripped-down quartet, Deer Tick mixed up their set with fan favorites from their entire catalog, while also premiering a handful of new songs. The band announced that they have an electric and an acoustic album coming out in September, and they played one tune from each. “Jumpstart” off their electric album sounded especially promising with a jangly guitar riff that recalled their forebears The Replacements and late-period Uncle Tupelo.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ Soulful Revue
The neo-classicist soul movement doesn’t seem to be going out of style anytime soon, and on Saturday night as the sun set over North Charleston, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats proved why they are leading the charge. It was a dynamic, spirited performance; complete with a vibrant horn section, matching outfits and coordinated dance moves, a Chuck Berry tribute from Rateliff, handclaps, and sing-alongs. These guys are way more than just the band that brought us “S.O.B.,” and their set was the most pleasant surprise of the weekend.
Shovels & Rope’s Homecoming
“We’ve been touring for several months in Europe and all over the United States, and we are so happy to be back home in Charleston,” a beaming Cary Ann Hearst said to an adoring crowd as she and her husband/bandmate Michael Trent settled into place at the beginning of their mesmerizing set. This was a homecoming performance for Shovels & Rope, and their pride was palpable, as their dream of bringing a music festival to their beloved city had now become a reality. Their fiery set was equal parts T. Rex and Townes Van Zandt, and the smoldering looks they gave each other while playing exuded a passion for music and each other that resonated with everyone in attendance.
More about High Water Fest.
Watch the official recap video: