Live Review

High Water Festival Sets a High Bar

Shovels and Rope on April 21, 2018

Shovels and Rope. Photo by Jonathan Stout/Charleston City Paper

As one of the drunkest towns in America, Charleston, South Carolina needs little excuse to party. But in the first fine week of spring, local-act-done-good Shovels and Rope gave the Low Country’s denizens a damn fine excuse for another weekend of debauchery with the second annual installation of the High Water Festival.

Nestled along the picturesque banks of the Cooper River, just abreast one of the busiest ports on the Atlantic, North Charleston’s Riverfront Park hosted 20 of Americana’s finest acts. There was the established lot, yes, the Isbells, Tweedys and Carliles, but talent organizers Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent (Shovels and Rope) went to the lengths to include a diverse crop of exciting up and comers. Few yet are familiar with Valerie June, Tank and the Bangas, or The Wild Reeds, but coming down the years this lot will surely replace their more seasoned peers as headliners at larger festivals around the nation.

Anticipation built in the weeks leading up to the second annual festival as the previous year’s memories surfaced with locals. Dawes, Deer Tick, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the Avett Brothers, and the Shins headlined a genesis festival that seemingly popped up overnight. Much like any young group exploding upon the scene with an extraordinary first album, would the fine people behind High Water be able to sustain the inspiration for a second go round, or would they go the way of so many other sophomore attempts?

Saturday, April 21, began with a bang. New Jersey native Nicole Atkins wasted little time introducing herself to a sparse crowd of early risers after the gates opened. Red-eyed concert goers shook off the shame of their Friday night binge as the relative newcomer took the stage. Atkins has a voice like a wounded angel, the notes rang out clear and serene but with a shade of anguish as her backing band belted out dirty, soulful rhythms. Atkins bellowed hard-luck love life narratives as if she were the femme fatale at the center of every epic lovelorn ode off Welcome to Asbury Park.

If Atkins blew in like a breeze off the coast, Ian Felice came down like the icy hand of winter unrelenting. Minus brothers Simone and James, Felice was sparsely accompanied while performing tracks from his recent solo work, In the Kingdom of Dreams. Any fan of the musician will note his isn’t music shown off at house parties; between songs Felice even commented on how he felt ashamed to be singing such sad-bastard balladry on a day so bright and blue. Still, the hauntingly masterful lyrics and dirge pacing of his solo material contain all the longing and mystery of an Edgar Allen Poem.

It is the building tension and triumphant release of music that makes it the most powerful of all art forms, and Ian Felice was merely building a base on which the Old 97s ratcheted up the energy. Little needs to be added to the canon of the Old 97s in the pages of No Depression –  the group has been well-covered since their introduction back in the '90s. Let it be noted despite their age, their brand of boozy alt-country was played with a passion and dedication to surpass most of the younger acts.

From there the momentum continued to build as the audience swelled to capacity with St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Lord knows what they put in the water down there in Birmingham but it’s obviously made frontman Paul Janeman a raving lunatic. The Broken Bones are solid enough by their own merits to entertain a crowd without a singer, but the addition of the Janeman’s soulful vocal delivery (and there’s no better word to describe it than "soul") while pin-wheeling across the stage like a man afire put a little bit of the Holy Spirit into even the dourest non-believer. The question arises, can one be both a saint and possessed?

Every swelling crescendo must be met in equal proportions by the resolution of a breakdown if a song is to be effective. Michael and Cary Ann are doubtlessly familiar with this concept, and so the comedown came down in the form of Brandi Carlile. There are few young musicians in as promising a position as Carlile. Her sixth album, By the Way, I Forgive You peaked at #1 in March, and her single "The Joke" brings a bit of integrity back to radio airwaves. In concert she careens between reserve and abandon. In the grips of impassioned lyrics she seems to lose herself on stage, but between songs while the band tunes up she treats the audience as if they were her closest friends.

High Water’s first night was closed out by Jeff Tweedy and Jason Isbell and the 400 unit. Both acts are fine and well: the former helped provide No Depression’s namesake, and the latter has secured the baton from Old Crow Medicine Show in trying to legitimize mainstream country. Neither suffer for media attention, and thus I feel my precious word count would better serve other musicians. As Saturday night closed out, revelers flooded into Charleston, and in every bar along King Street the words "High Water" were echoed into delirium like a fabled city of gold.

Due to its geographic isolation, Charleston suffers for touring acts. A lack of venues combined with a relatively modest population means most bands don’t bother cutting six hours east from Atlanta when larger metropolises can be found four hours or less in every other direction. Perhaps it was this, in addition to the rising popularity of festivals, that motivated Hearst and Trent to say damn it all and organize their own. Years of touring such weekend jamborees must have imparted some lessons to the pair. The word “festival” conjures images of the herded masses at Lollapalooza or Chicago’s Pitchfork Festival, but for High Water allow your mind’s eye to settle upon a more austere, smaller celebration such as the Newport Folk Festival. With only two stages and attendance limited to 10,000 tickets, High Water didn’t exemplify the same type of festival fatigue that sets in at larger, less intimate affairs. Neither were the grounds littered with corporate logos shilling products and services, because we all know nothing says rock and roll quite like a Doritos stage or Bud Light porta john village. The High Water Festival, much like the city of Charleston itself, has the rare ability to draw people from all over the country while simultaneously making them feel right at home.   

One artist who said as much from the stage was Sunday’s opener, Valerie June. The previous day’s wind had abated, but the sky was gray and there was no sunrise. Rain crowds threatened from across the water, but June brought with her all the warmth found in her very name. The plunking of her guitar renders a summertime lullaby from any gray day, and her lyrics were delivered via voice honeycomb sweet. She sings of love in a funky twang, of the passion and beauty of youth in full bloom. Her folksy chattering and homely turns of phrase shine to create a fresh persona in what many fear is becoming a predictable genre.

But June was merely an aperitif to the main course of Tank and the Bangas. It should be noted this group isn’t exactly in ND’s wheelhouse, but that is only because the six-piece is so stunningly original and creative their music defies genre. Featuring the only flute accompaniment of the festival, the audience didn’t exactly know what to make of the Bangas until the first few bars settled in like a collective seizure, producing an impromptu dance party out of those few souls courageous enough to forsake their hangover beds to discover the most exciting new act on the festival circuit. It cannot be understated how well frontwoman Tarriona “Tank” Ball worked the crowd. Her energy was purely infectious. Between twerking all the way down to the floor and engaging the audience, her smile was one of pure joy. With eyes perpetually wide like a child’s on the Fourth of July, she delivered an unexpected slice of heaven. The meager audience just didn’t know what to make of it all, but with closeout funk cover of '90s anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the crowd finally connected with the brash brilliance of these unknowns. Again, it may not be your cup of meat, but you’ll be hearing more about these NOLA natives in the years to come.

The problem with playing a festival organized by a band performing in the self-same festival is that headlining options are limited. Shakey Graves may be the epitome of Americana music and deserved to be the closeout performer. While Alejandro Rose-Garcia played with a band for the majority of his set, anyone with sense enough to be familiar with Rose-Garcia’s music knows the man can pick that gitfiddle like a whiskeybent Earl Scruggs and stomp out snare and bass with the vigor of Max Roach, all while wailing out lyrical brilliance with the intensity of Robert Plant. He is his own band, and while many of the well-to-do Charlestonians were ignorant of his music for radio slavery, few left the venue without the name Shakey Graves on their lips.

Of course in the prime position was Shovels and Rope. There are few locals without a good-natured story of Hearst from the days she spent touring the rotgut neons of King Street. Success quickly found her after she joined with Michael Trent. As Shovels and Rope the duo went from sleeping in their touring van to headlining Newport and playing The Tonight Show in the span of a year and some change. While South Carolina peers Hootie and the Blowfish are better known nationally, Shovels and Rope are clearly the local favorites. Charleston darlings, the husband-and-wife team sing songs about the hard up and beat down. The characters that populate their narratives mirror those of real-life locals. Individually, they perform and compose adeptly, but when the two come together, especially when singing harmonies with eyes screwed tight onstage, there is something magic and magnetic that passes between them and filters out into the audience. The crowd responded with love, singing along to every song as if it were the good old days when everybody was miserable and Shovels and Rope were openers at townie venues.

High Water Festival is a rare diamond in the coal mine of the music industry. Its limited size and corporate-free sponsorship are strengths to every Bonnaroo weakness. The festival is an opportunity for locals of every stripe and type to mingle while enjoying music hand-selected from across the country. High Water draws big names while deftly balancing regionalism in amongst the Americana genre. Closers Susto and Band of Horses are Low Country natives and local favorites that seam together perfectly with national draws like Jason Isbell or Jeff Tweedy. If the good folks behind High Water can retain both the charm and the intimacy of their first two years in business, there’s little reason to suspect High Water won’t become one of the most sought after tickets on the summer festival circuit.