High Water Festival - Sunday Recap

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Written By Shank WIlson

The High Water festival was back for a 3rd consecutive year of “music, food, and libations” at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. I was on location for a packed Sunday afternoon where the weather was sympathetic, the breeze was refreshing, and bathrooms were line-free. 

With a Heisenberg High-Ball in hand (Four Roses and Tropical Red Bull), I approach the Edisto Stage where country singer-songwriter, as well as former Grammy nominee and Cary Ann Hearst collaborator, Hayes Carll, is performing. Carll can tell a great story with lyrics that sandwich altruistic wisdom around dry, and often self-deprecating, wit. There may be no better example of that than his introduction regarding the heavy subject matter in the song, “KMAG YOYO.” Carll informs the audience that the song is about a friend who joins the Army, ends up in Afghanistan, gets caught dealing heroin, finds himself on LSD thinking he’s going to the moon, and finally sobers up when he’s hit with an IED. “I know what you’re thinking,” Carll says with expressionless sarcasm, “This is just another pandering attempt at mainstream country success…guilty.” 

After Carll, the Stono Stage featured Dr. Dog. It took about two songs for the band’s emotionality on stage to grab the crowd and propel the entire event up a notch where it would remain the rest of the day. Catchy guitar hooks, great harmonies, and such dynamic execution of their catalogue had me wishing they had a little more time. When they finished, the girl next to me mused out loud to no one in particular, “Oh Dr. Dog, I love you.” Get in line, sister. 

One of the great musical trends over the last decade is the reemergence of the 60s-style soul revue. Durand Jones and the Indications are cut from that cloth and their set was a live action documentary of how to hold an audience’s emotions in your hand and lead them on an epic journey to the land of joy.  Jones’ Anthony Hamilton-esque smoothness combined with drummer Aaron Frazer’s Phillip Bailey-esque falsetto made them the perfect vocal foils for each other. 

The band closed with “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Beatles which became the most impassioned sing along of the day. When the song started, I had begun walking away from the stage towards the bathroom area and seemingly everybody I passed along the way including vendor employees and those sitting down in the far reaches of the venue were taking part in the moment. This is the kind of unified moment you can only have at a festival where just one artist is playing at any given time. Kudos to the festival curators for allowing that to be possible. 

Speaking of the festival curators, it was time to catch a set from our beloved hosts, Shovels and Rope. Donning the stage in gorgeous matching blue outfits, Michael Trent announced to the festival guests that this was their first show in 6 months. He then participated in a running theme of festival performers by kicking his shoes off. I thought the story of their show was the new material from their new album, “By Blood.” I mean, how often do you wish a band would skip the songs you’re familiar with and play more stuff off the new album? It’s a very rare occurrence, but that was the overwhelming feeling I had as their set came to a close. In post-show conversations, I discovered I was not alone in this assessment. Perhaps this is a harbinger of better things to come for the lowcountry’s favorite power-couple duo.

J. Roddy Walston and The Business was next and whenever I see them on a bill, I pour a little out for the bands that have to play before and after them. From the opening piano riff on “Don’t Break the Needle” to the final snare hit on “Heavy Bells,” you can trust that they will give you, the fan, everything they have on stage. Walston was a blur of hair, eyes, and teeth as he bounced back and forth on each foot like a boxer limbering up in his corner.  The walls of the side-stage canopy were dropped for the show exposing a collection of, mostly attractive women, energetically dancing throughout the set. And yes, as people around me pointed out, when seated at the piano, Walston stomps his feet with such vigor it looks very much like that piano is on the receiving end of an acutely sexual experience. 

Speaking of sexual experiences, next up was The Head and The Heart whose lead singer, Jonathon Russell, looks like somebody your recently divorced cousin would hope to meet while vacationing in the south of France. I mean, Game of Thrones might have been premiering on TV at that moment, but the city of Charleston was being serenaded in person by a singing Khal Drogo. With so many hit-worthy songs and so much beauty in their harmonies, they were the perfect antithetical compliment post-J. Roddy Walston and The Business. For me to proclaim that the headliner stole the show is perhaps an oxymoronic impossibility but, considering the high caliber of the shows on Sunday, they did just that. Not only was their performance captivating but they appeared clearly grateful to close and fully embraced the role of festival ambassadors. Russell even name-checked local Charleston band, “Babe Club” and, yes, kicked off the shoes.  

Walking back through the gates after the show, it occurred to me that High Water encapsulated the predominant musical tastes of Charleston in almost the same way 96 Wave Fest with great success in the 90s. I realize that we Charlestonians need this and I hope this remains a spring tradition for years to come. 

Taylor Czerwinski