- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
All photo credits: Christa Joyner Moody
I attended last year’s inaugural High Water festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and it was an auspicious debut for an Americana/folk focused festival with a few indie rock bands sprinkled in. The two day festival takes place at Riverfront Park which, as described, sits in a bend of the Cooper River in a mildly industrial part of town. The park itself is already situated with an onsite amphitheater, but given the need for two larger stages the smart festival organizer folks effectively have flipped the park 90 degrees in order to slot in two viewing areas. With the bands on the smaller Edisto stage firing off the minute a set ends on the larger Stono stage there are no breaks with ten hours of music each day. The stages are named for two other South Carolina rivers that are ironically nowhere near Riverfront Park, but speak to the low country feel and genteel hospitality of the event. Last year’s headliners were The Avett Brothers and The Shins, who this year have been supplanted by the equally worthy Jason Isbell and Band of Horses. With only hosts Shovels & Rope overlapping from last year, it’s a great chance to catch twenty artists in the Americana, folk, soul and indie contexts - whether up and coming or well established. Sadly, one of last year’s highlights, classic soul singer Charles Bradley has flown on to wherever Screaming Eagles of Soul go when they are no longer bound to return to Earth. With the preceding as context and a beautiful sunny Spring day as a bonus, the rest of us soldier on.
Not necessarily intending to get into the grounds early enough to catch this Toronto based indie band, I ended being able to catch their full set. The band is led by lead singer Jasmyn Burke and guitarist Morgan Waters, but clearly it is Burke’s show. With two albums under their belts in two years, they are clearly dedicated to their craft. Their intro consisted of a slab of squelchy feedback calling the crowd to order. Not fitting the mold of most of the artists here, Weaves pushed that to their advantage. Burke’s voice is unique to say the least, an unrefined squawk that doesn’t seem like it would hold up but it does. Pulling most of their set from last year’s Wide Open LP, they opened with the insistent beat and swooping guitar of ‘#53’. The coos and whoops of the bouncier ‘Slicked’ had some in the crowd up and dancing - not bad for a first day festival opener. After playing their most accessible song ‘Walkaway’, when Burke announced that it was time to get down to the “nitty gritty” it seemed like just something to fill a gap, but turns out she meant it. The songs that followed were characterized by Burke’s caterwauling and the band’s shambolic noise. Closing with a stretched out version of ‘Scream’ where Burke repeatedly did just that, there was a Stooges' like frightening ferocity about it. It was a wound up forty-five minute set that the band made the most of - parents scrambling for ear plugs for the kiddos was a clear sign of early day success.
Next up on the main stage, and my intended first set, was New Jersey born and bred crooner Nicole Atkins. Her accented roots only mildly noticeable in between song banter, her voice goes from a high countrypolitan purity to soulful rasp at will. Early set highlight ‘Darkness Falls So Quiet’ was slinky and soulful, with Atkins showing restraint and guitarist Steven Cooper showing himself second in command here. Atkins showed her full range on the Roy Orbison meets Patsy Cline structure of the excellent ‘A Little Crazy’. She covered the ‘Ball of Confusion’-flavored funk breakdown of ‘Brokedown Luck’ just as ably as the country shuffle of the title track of last year’s stylistic smorgasbord LP, Goodnight Rhonda Lee. ‘Listen Up’ was another blue-eyed soul song sung behind dark sunglasses, dedicated to doing stupid shit as a kid. After covering all her bases, she also showed capacity to front a metal band if she wanted to on the dark and bit indulgent ‘The Tower’. A gracious performer with unparalleled vocal abilities.
Likely the live band I have seen most in my life, my home state Texas heroes Old 97’s took the main stage by storm. With a quarter century of material to draw from, they had no trouble bringing their bar band energy across in a larger outdoor setting. Being biased and having seen them so many times in their friendly hometown confines, I’ve never been sure what their pull is outside the Lone Star borders. Given the t-shirt count and large mid-day crowd on hand, they have plenty of fans. Songs ranged from the more recent to all the way back to their alt-country pioneer roots on ‘Hitchhike to Rhome’. The band played a revved up version of the ever-so-subtley titled ‘Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On’ with lead singer Rhett Miller’s mini-windmills making it look like his right elbow is unhinged. ‘Big Brown Eyes’ was another highlight showing the song to have more hooks in it than a Lake Conroe bass. Nicole Atkins joined Miller on stage for an X-like rendition of ‘Good With God’ and bassist Murry Hammond took a vocal turn on ‘West Texas Teardrops’ - explaining the song was a product of being locked in his room with nothing but Beatles and Johnny Cash records. Miller says he got in a bit of familial trouble with the irreverent ‘Jesus Loves You’, but with lines like “he can walk on water, but I can kiss you on the sand” we appreciate it. It wouldn’t be an Old 97’s show without required by Texas state law closer ‘Timebomb’, which saw the day’s first (and only?) pogoers. Been a few years since I have seen them, so great to see them still going strong.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones
I have heard of Paul Janeway and his Alabama based St. Paul and the Broken Bones and listened to a few songs, but have never “experienced” them live. I think I walked past them playing at Austin City Limits one year, but was stupidly headed somewhere else. If you’ve seen them perform you probably don’t need my shallow description. Backed by a seven piece band, including three piece horn section, Janeway looks like not much more than an H&R Block accountant festooned in Mardi Gras garb on his way to celebrate the end of another grueling tax season. But when his gold lamè cloak drops in favor of his gold plated handheld mic all bets are off. With a full on gospel soul shouter approach Janeway has a fully rapt audience going rapidly from the intro of ‘Crumbling Lampposts’ to ‘Go With the Flow’ and into ‘Like a Mighty River’ seamlessly. Janeway gave Van Morrison’s ‘I’ve Been Working’, for lack of a better phrase, a full workout but also tackled Tame Impala’s ‘Eventually’ showing his full range. During the band’s signature ‘Broken Bones and Pocket Change’, Janeway crawled under the draped drum riser, still singing by the way, only to emerge wrapped in stage carpeting that was previously duct taped down. Perhaps a stage stunt, but a first for me and also cementing Janeway’s unhinged stage presence. Before starting the Morrison cover 45 minutes in he said it was “time to dance your ass off”, but that had ensued dozens of minutes before. If there were any non-converts as the set came to close it would have been impossible to tell. A truly jaw-dropping experience that would be unbelievable to see in the confines of a sweaty juke joint - hopefully I get to see that someday.
The Wild Reeds
Perhaps the band furtherest away from home, L.A. based The Wild Reeds, put on a display of pop smarts and three part harmonies. Noting they hadn’t seen the sunshine in sixty days, the band’s sunny disposition as the sun was starting to set made them the best fit for typifying the positive vibe and laid back setting of the whole festival. With a three woman front of Sharon Silva, Kinsey Lee, and Mackenzie Howe, backed by an able rhythm section, the leads took turns on vocals and harmonized otherwise. Lead guitarist Silva has the strongest lead voice and also stood out wearing a groovy pair of butter colored bell bottoms. Her leads on ‘Capable’ and ‘Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)’ were crystalline and ably backed by her bandmates. The prettiest harmonies came on ‘Fix You Up’, while the acoustic guitar and harmonica of ‘Where I’m Going’ showed the band at their folky best. Golden songs for the day’s golden hour.
An artist I appreciate more than enjoy, Carlile writes some great songs (particularly affecting ballads), but is also backed by a crack band. When she played ‘The Eye’ three songs in it showcased her and twin brothers, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, at their harmonic best accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. But in the opening two songs and many other moments Carlile veers to the bombastic and becomes much less interesting. She clearly has an enthusiastic following and was openly welcomed by the crowd. Her story of her wife giving birth to their first child and her own inability to emotionally engage in the moment was both funny and honest. The contrasts in her approach, both live and on record, are wrapped up in one of her most known songs, ‘The Story’. Once a mainstay of one of my most-played Spotify playlists, the move from tender ballad to full on screech was enough to inspire deletion and sent me on my way here. I also don’t believe she played ‘Every Time I Hear That Song’ off her latest LP, which has been a live set mainstay and would have provided some welcome variety.
Pulling a solo set on the smaller stage prior to the headliner, the Wilco leader had a more than respectable crowd on hand as the sun had fully set. Gamely contending with the pre-show music at the main stage (this was eventually shut off), Tweedy (photo on Gig Review page) needed only his voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a deep catalog of songs to hush the audience. His self-deprecating approach showed him to be a bit grouchy, but not pushing the line of degrading the audience as some auteurs tend to do. He even told a hilarious story of being detained by Canadian border guards after a bit of weed was found on their tour bus a few weeks back. Decked out for the evening chill in ski cap and jacket, Tweedy started with ‘Via Chicago’ and when he shortly thereafter got to ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ the crowd was respectfully quieted. Tweedy quipped that he saved his happiest songs for the festival before proceeding into a softened “all my daydreams are disasters” take on Uncle Tupelo track ‘New Madrid’. The Woody Guthrie derived ‘California Stars’ was particularly fitting for a beautifully clear sky South Carolina night. I’ve seen Wilco a few times over the years and love their sets, but it was a treat to see Tweedy engaged with an audience in a solo setting and also getting to hear the nuances in these sturdy songs.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
I’ve seen Isbell (top photo) perform many times in his post Drive-By Truckers incarnations. He is an artist with talent and songwriting capabilities to burn. It is no wonder he holds court at the Ryman for a weeks worth of shows each year. With songs from two excellent albums under his own name and several others under the more band oriented 400 Unit moniker, he has plenty to pull from. Given a fairly brisk and meteoric rise, this was by far the largest setting I had seen him play. If there was a shortcoming in the set, the energy level seemed a bit underwhelming in the beginning. The normally fiery, if not exactly epic ‘Super 8’ was an odd one to start the set and sounded particularly downcast. The sinister and snaky lead by Sadler Vaden provided some sizzle to ‘White Man’s World’ and Isbell sounded more impassioned singing ‘Molotov’ off of last year’s Nashville Sound. The second half of the set was markedly improved, but not all due to any increase in amperage. The sultry solo on ‘Last of My Kind’ was a standout and wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, vocals colored the back to back ‘Tupelo’ and ‘Stockholm’ perfectly. Following with other tracks from the excellent Southeastern album, ‘Flying Over Water’ had plenty of punch, while one of the sexiest folk songs on record, ‘Cover Me Up’, is always a stunner. As a huge container ship passed by in the river opposite the stage, Isbell did get in a solid one liner about Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips - declaring “I am your folk singer now”. Isbell and Vader finally let things fly, with Isbell fitted out with a Flying V, on the Drive-By Truckers’ track ‘Never Gonna Change’, and it was worth the wait as the two of them traded licks. Not the most energetic of showmen, Isbell always turns in an impressive set and his songwriting is unparalleled these days. He proved this further on the closer - the clear headed argument against eternal life on Earth, ‘If We Were Vampires’.