Going into High Water weekend I prepared myself for slight disappoint. I knew the festival atmosphere would be there, but the Shovels and Rope crew have set the bar pretty high with past lineups that have included The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Band of Horses, The Shins, and Jeff Tweedy just to name a few. Could this year stack up?
Now in its third year I’ve watched High Water start out with an identity built by Lowcountry hometown heroes Shovels and Rope, who through hard work and dedication built a loyal fan base and broke out on a national level. Now they pay it back to their hometown fans in the form of a festival, curated with some of their favorite acts, and modeled around some of the best festivals they’ve performed at over the years. Going into year one I imagined this could turn into our own little Newport Folk Festival. Artists collaborating, located on the water, featuring legendary sets year after year. That sort of history isn’t built over night though.
Now after year three, I don’t see High Water as that. It’s becoming its own thing and special in its own way. It leans hard on Charleston and the local food scene with a brunch curated by some of Charleston’s top chefs and local craft brews. The festival food also features plenty of great local vendors like the hit Roti Rolls and Lewis BBQ. The dining area is in a picturesque part of the park, with Spanish moss hanging from the trees that provide shade while you eat your lunch or dinner.
The two festival stages are both aptly named Stono and Edisto are divided by a hill in the middle of the park that fills up with people who set up early in the day with a balcony view over the crowd. The stages face the water, so the bands watch ships go by, and boaters pull up and are able to listen to the music and can maybe catch a glimpse of the big screens showing the bands play. Really, it’s an ideal setup for a music festival. And even with all those local connections, this year lacked something for me.
I had trouble putting my finger on it exactly. I’d say Charleston’s become the heart of the South Carolina music scene over the last ten years. You can’t throw a rock in The Royal American on a Wednesday night without hitting a talented young musician. So when you’re at High Water, and there’s only one truly local band and they’re the host, it feels kind of strange. It sucks something out for me, and honestly bums me out. This taking nothing away from the wonderful Shrimp Family Records Band, which is an amazing collaboration of musicians.
For us to fight for more local bands on big festivals is nothing new though, it’s literally the reason we exist. So if that’s not the direction the festival wants to go, that’s understandable. It’s teased that direction in years past though, with The High Divers, Slow Runner, Indianola, Jump Little Children, SUSTO, and of course Band of Horses last year who declared “It’s good to be home!” at the beginning of their set. They also covered a SUSTO song and had that band’s front man on stage. What a sense of pride in local music to have all these acts. It’s like having Pass the Peas with chefs from Nashville, LA, Atlanta and beyond. Sure, the foods gonna be great, but the local chefs might have something to say about that.
Going in I hoped to see a whole lot of energy and plenty of collaborations. The real rushes I got were from J Roddy Walston’s late Sunday night set and Thelma and the Sleaze and their foul mouths that woke up the crowd early on Sunday afternoon. J Roddy was like a shot of energy that was much needed for an overall laid back day. I’ve seen him a few times, and it’s always been fine…but the High Water set was a breath of fresh air. The wind whipped his long hair and blew the fog from the stage, almost smothering each member as a group of fans or friends stood side stage and danced to each song. I loved that. We saw plenty of acts having fun, but the J Roddy crew were having a blast. And maybe the second to last slot on a Sunday night to close out a festival might be a slightly unenviable slot, but they had their chance to leave the last impression along with The Head and the Heart. I wasn’t over the top excited for The Head and the Heart, but they exceeded all expectations.
Jenny Lewis was bathed in light on a pedestal in the center of the stage when she wasn’t behind a piano. Her new album out earlier this year has received plenty of critical praise and her set followed along those lines as one of the top sets of the festival. Mitski seemed like a slight outlier on the lineup, but was even more of an outlier live. Her performance differed greatly from all other acts catching the attention of new fans, also making it apparent plenty of people didn’t get it. They were definitely top three acts at the festival, if not the best.
As for the act that I’ve listened to most after leaving, that would be Phosphorescent who has always been a sort of playlist band for me. A song here and there pop up, so I’m vaguely familiar, but I’ve done more digging in to the full albums and have really started to connect. That set was perfect for the time of day and mood of the festival.
Last year we had fun figuring out the 23ish bands who would perform in 2019, so this year I’ve made a mock list of 2020 potential acts. So here’s the way too early prediction for High Water. The list is made with collabs in mind, so the markers note the bands that COULD collab.
The War on Drugs +
Kurt Vile +
Better Oblivion Community Center=
Strand of Oaks
Bonnie Prince Billy*
Shovels and Rope
Shrimp Family Records band performing as Secret Guest