- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
All photo credits: Christa Joyner Moody
Driving home through a downpour Monday morning, the live music gods smiled once again on High Water as the Sunday closing day was overcast, windy, and cool, but no rain fell. Parts of last year’s lineup were shortened due to a much more ominous threat of rain, but even at that all of last year’s acts made the stage. What this year’s Sunday lacked in sunshine was more than made up for in energetic sets of everyone I saw. Also, whereas last year there was a clearly dominant lineup on the main stage, this year saw much more balance between the stages later in the day with the undercard outperforming in my opinion. Note on last year though that it was a big miss on my part not to catch John Moreland, though I’ve been fortunate to see him since. On the highway home, dates were announced for next year’s festival: April 13-14, 2019, at the same venue. That's only 51 weeks y'all! So if you have any propensity towards Americana music along with a scattering of other acts, it's well worth it if you are in the Southeast U.S. or even Canada as some fans we met.
This marked my third time seeing the one-of-a-kind Valerie June (pictured above). The first time was in 2014 when she opened for the dearly departed Sharon Jones in a small club, both June and Jones made impressions that will always remain. June’s talent has only increased since then and her charisma on stage is unmatched. Certainly she could have commanded a later day slot with ease, but it’s always nice to have a solid draw earlier in the day and particularly having her light (as she puts it) and sparkly clothes set the tone to overshadow the dreary weather. Playing without a lead guitarist, June led her band using a series of instruments. She opened by playing her “baby” (which I believe is called a banjolele) through a soulful rendition of ‘Somebody to Love’ from her debut album. Not to be trite, but her voice has a piercing high lonesome sound while also projecting great warmth. If not for the advent of electric instruments, you feel you could have been in the Mississippi Delta circa 1930 when she played ‘Tennessee Time’ and a cover of blues stalwart ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. June was at her most charming telling the story of how the song ‘Astral Plane’ came to her while cooking a meal for her man and herself, and the song is surely a gift for anyone receiving it. Nonplussed by her uncooperative banjo (“it’s a banjo” she quipped as if they are destined to be troublesome), she closed on a steamrolling take of ‘Got Soul’. June is a national treasure, who along with Paul Janeway the day before had to have made many converts this day.
Tank and the Bangas
I had no familiarity with this New Orleans-based band prior to the High Water line-up coming out. Led by the irrepressible Tarriona “Tank” Ball, the six piece band along with Tank and another emcee, Angelika “Jelly” Joseph, play a fluid mix of funk, soul, hip-hop and spoken word. I couldn’t tell you names of “songs”, with the set being more a free flow of spontaneous interaction with the crowd and each other. The exchange between Tank and Joseph egging her on was great to watch. I don’t know anything about poetry slams, but if it’s a team sport Tank would be the ringer. The one song I did recognize was a full on cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to close out their set. Energetic and infectious as Hell they did come up short in one area. They seemingly had no power to make their rabid white middle-aged fan base dance well, but they did make them dance!
Another artist that I don’t have much familiarity with, but he’s from my native Texas and wears that with pride. Additionally, he was obviously moved to be up on the main stage in front of a huge crowd. He spoke about his indebtedness to Shovels & Rope who took him out on tour when he was just getting started and opened his set with several solo songs as he originally played. Not the typical solo acoustic artist, Graves energetically plays guitar while also using each of his feet to separately power a bass drum and a cymbal. How is able to sing, play guitar and effectively two drums simultaneously is a mystery to those of us that can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Joined by his band after a few songs, the fuller sound only revved things up further. Full speed ahead seemed to be theme of the day, and he and his lead guitarist had sparks flying right off on ‘Roll the Bones’. Graves also has a new album coming out (to be reviewed on our site) and played several tracks including ‘Cops and Robbers’ which had a sweeping rockabilly feel. ‘Pansy Waltz’ had a particularly big sound, while the bluesy shuffle of the upcoming ‘Dining Alone’ showed more versatility. Being relatively uninitiated, there was a certain sameness to some of the songs but he is a great entertainer with obvious depth and apparently learned a few things from Shovels & Rope over what sounded like a lot of oysters.
Repping the small but selective set of indie rock artists on hand, Leithauser (pictured on Gig Review page) is someone I have much more knowledge of and I was fortunate to catch one of his prior band’s, The Walkmen, final shows. His set ended up being the unintentionally briefest of the festival, but I think ultimately my favorite. There were definitely some technical glitches leading up to his entry onto the stage, but it’s not a certainty that’s what led to a fifteen minute delayed start to what was to be a forty-five minute set. Always dressed to the nines, Leithauser’s ability to put such emotion, energy, and melody into a song has always amazed me. He also seems a pretty unassuming guy until he rips into a song, going from a croon to full on shout without ever missing a note. He’s an enormously gifted singer that comes off an unlikely mix of Sinatra and a more well-mannered John Lydon, while throwing in Woody Allen’s observational qualities of his beloved New York City to boot. Starting with ‘Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)’, Leithauser’s voice was full throttle and if that wasn’t enough all of his band members sing as well. Of his bandmates, drummer Stephen Patterson stood out frantically driving the pace. Every song was a highlight and the crowd was swept up in the energy either singing along or whooping at any moment of silence. Given the shortened time they raced through both ‘The Morning Stars’ and then ‘A 1000 Times’ with Leithauser belting the chorus of the latter as many times as the song’s title - and then making a smart ass aside that the song was called ‘A 1000 Times’ in case you were wondering. ‘Blackout’ and ‘1959’ showed some softer moments, but also had soaring heights as well. With staff coming on stage to usher the band off, Leithauser told a heart tugging story of how the song ‘Bride’s Dad’ came to be before launching into it. Completing about 2/3 of the song and knowing the end was near, the band tore into a fierce ‘Alexandra’ as the festival guy sulked in the corner. A brilliant mix of class and a punk ethos. There aren’t many artists operating and performing at this level. A high water mark for High Water and a stunning display of a band giving it their all with their backs against the wall as the clock worked against them.
Rating: A+ (Festival Best!)
Shovels & Rope
Given Leithauser’s sleight of hand in grabbing a few extra minutes, my son and I were a bit late for the host’s main stage set. I’ve seen the dynamic charisma of husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent many times - from a small club to this festival setting. So though we didn’t get a great spot given the crowd their energy and awe inspired by the turnout were obvious. It must be rewarding for them to have delivered such a diverse and meaningful festival to their city and to have already announced dates for next year. Admittedly they aren’t a group whose recordings I seek out and maybe that is my fault for having seen them live first. But if you’ve seen them before and witnessed their exchange of instruments and vocals it is clear they are both immensely talented and entertaining. As a duo playing stripped down instrumentation, being able to carry a football plus size field of folks is an amazing thing. Arriving late and leaving early to catch the sets surrounding theirs at the smaller stage would hopefully be forgiven, as I’m sure they would want their incoming artists to feel welcome too. Going to pass on a set rating given I wasn’t there for long, but heard their biggest hit, ‘Birmingham’ as well as the closing Chuck Berry cover of ‘Never Can Tell’. There was also a funny moment when a large container ship (maybe the same one from Isbell the night before) was chugging into port wth the captain blowing an air horn. The duo had to stop to let the ship pass by as Cary Ann noted they were receiving all their supplies. Probably fitting that Shovels & Rope were on stage to welcome the ship to port. Cary Ann and Michael are a blessing to their city and have gone out of their way to support other bands. To say their investments of time and passion are paying enormous dividends for themselves and their musical brethren is evident from the success and fan interest in this two year old festival.
Host Rating: A+
The band’s name seems to be in all caps for some reason, though they hardly need that to get your attention. Another band where my first introduction was as an opener last year, but it doesn’t take long to notice that leader Justin Osborne can’t help but write hook filled melodies. Having a laid back vibe similar to last year’s Dawes (who were a lot better live than I expected), they go from country tinged pop (‘County Line’) to spaced out melodies (‘Hard Drugs’, ‘Cosmic Cowboy’). The band happens to be based in Charleston, but were certainly here more on merit than proximity and have more of a Southern California sound anyway. With only two albums released to date and several catchy-as-Hell songs off of each these guys (and gal) could emerge to be a modern era Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles. And speaking of Fleetwood Mac the band does seem to have had a revolving door of members and there is no mistaking Osborne is the leader. Having some other members contribute a bit more might up the ante even further, a song like ‘Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers’ benefitted from the lead guitarist’s harmonies. At the end of the day, it’s feel good music that everyone will relate to somehow, whether it’s the frankly titled ‘Gay in the South’ or ‘Chllin’ on the Beach With My Best Friend Jesus Christ’. Sadly, they didn’t play the latter, but the trancelike ‘Jah Werx’ made for an ample substitute that could have vamped on for thirty minutes if they had the time. The set peaked on ‘Diamond’s Icaro’ (whatever that may be about) when Osborne stood alongside the drummer while bassist Jenna Desmond worked the crowd and almost face planted tripping over the drum riser. Great set of great songs, but feel like there will be much more to come here.
Band of Horses
Originally from Seattle, the Ben Bridwell led band is now also based in Charleston. Having the last three bands of the night all be “local” seems a little odd I guess, but it doesn’t speak to any lack of expansiveness in the line-up. The bands couldn’t be further apart in terms of styles. I have never been a huge fan of this band, but over the course of five studio albums they have certainly racked up enough recognizable songs to get through an hour plus set without any thuds. Their best songs are pretty delicate constructs and along with Bridwell’s reedy vocals that push to falsetto in places that makes for a hard act to pull off in a large outdoor live (and windy) setting. I heard some saying that they were the loudest of all the acts, but from halfway back and with the wind kicking up Bridwell’s voice was lost in spots along with the music in others. Without regard for that, songs like ‘Is There a Ghost’ and ‘Casual Party’ are instantly recognizable and recall how good the band can be even if that’s not always remembered. Even opener ‘The Great Salt Lake’ met with immediate recall for a casual listener. Other songs like the sturdier ‘Laredo’, ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ and ‘The Funeral’ do speak to a strong catalog of songs worthy of closer status. Although the crowd was a bit smaller than for Isbell the night before, judging from the Band of Horses merch on display they definitely have a solid fan base. Even though I did overhear one guy mention he bought their hoodie because it was cold outside and was asking if the band was any good before they started. The band did earn the best gesture of the festival award by playing a soulful version of SUSTO’s ‘Hard Drugs’ mid-set. A very cool thing to do.