High Water Festival 2019 - Day 1, Charleston, SC - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

High Water Festival 2019 - Day 1, Charleston, SC

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:
High Water Festival 2019 - Day 1, Charleston, SC
High Water Festival 2019 - Day 1, Charleston, SC

I don’t know much about organizing festival line-ups and the like, but the juxtaposition of The War and Treaty and Mitski playing back to back on High Water’s main stage was one of the most brilliant things I have seen.  No doubt what these two artists had up their sleeves when this was planned out was not even in their own heads at the time and certainly not coordinated, but it made for great cinema when it happened. 

But there was plenty of other music before and after that of equally fine caliber.  The third year festival, hosted by Shovels & Rope in their home base of Charleston, SC, stepped things up yet again.  The musical approach of two alternating stages has remained, but lots more food vendors and craft cocktail options were available and welcome.  They have also created a “No Blanket” zone in front of the main stage and carved out a larger VIP viewing section (more on that later).  The no blankets idea was a good move to scare away the indignant types at every festival that will take up twelve square feet of prime space, refuse to stand, and freak out when your Olukais touch a piece of fringe.

Another thing that good organizers know to do is to bring out a worthy festival opener to get commerce flowing.  The first year it was Julien Baker and this year Lilly Hiatt got dsc1914 us out of our hotel and at opening gates in spite of our best intentions to pace ourselves.  Hiatt and her crack band kicked things off on the main stage.  They started with ‘All Kinds of People’, the opening track off of last year’s solid Trinity Lane.  Her lead guitar player had things smoking early on ‘I Wanna Go Home’ in support of Hiatt’s Southern twang and sharply observed lyrics - “I studied the lines on butterfly wings”.  In honor of Record Store Day and her dad (with whom she shared a split single this year), she played ‘Imposter’ written about him.  And speaking of records, she closed with that same named song punched up with a Crazy Horse stomp.

On the smaller stage, an amalgamation of local bands (including S&R’s Michael Trent on keys) going by the name of Shrimp Records Family Band played for the third year.  I only listened to a handful of tunes, but the ragtag bunch had a loose vibe going mixing in punk, garage, and alt country sounds.  Singing of broken tail lights and hard core shows, the group came off the Southern cousins of the Hoboken, NJ, collective of bands like The Feelies.

Soundblab’s #1 festival pick The War and Treaty (partly inspired by their Moon River set last year) lived up to their billing with a mid-day set on the main stage.  Backed by  dsc3116a six piece band, husband and wife Michael and Tanya Trotter put on a display of goodwill and musicality that is worth seeking out.  Incredibly they opened their set with three unreleased songs that had only been played for the first time the night before.  Likely titled ‘Won’t You Take Me In’, the opener unfolded like some long lost Van Morrison classic.  A soulful, gospel number that didn’t even have horns coming in ’til the five minute mark.  It was a celebratory prayer of a song that showcased the couples’ vocal firepower as well as restraint.  The following song had more of a funk flavor and then ‘Tell Me What You Want’, including Michael talking to the crowd, effectively incited joy.  The call and response between the two singers and the crowd on ‘Jeep Cherokee Laredo’ was a show stopper and they closed on the barn burner ‘Down to the River’.  With new songs showing that they are an evolving and forward looking group, their stock in trade is showcasing compassion between themselves and their crowd.  Michael’s outspoken message, as a PTSD affected veteran, begs for connection and communication.   

The flip side of The War and Treaty’s coin, the characters that populate Mitski’s carefully calculated songs are all about the connection desperately wanted but not made.  Walking out to a stage set similar to David Byrne’s recent act, with a white painted shaker style table and chair, though Mitski’s props become central to the entire set.  With her band mg 9452 either pounding through glam fueled bursts or icy synth strains, she somehow ripped through twenty songs in an hour.  All of them with Mitski performing a choreographed routine of precise movements aided only by jazz shoes and knee pads.  Pausing after the third song, ‘Old Friend’, she shooed the remaining photographers away from the pit, explained this would be the mood of the set, and informed the crowd that she was “going back in”.  Back into the unwillingly detached denizens of her songs.  A muscular ‘Dan the Dancer’ had her scissor kicking on her back, while the following ‘I Will’ had her singing with her head hanging backwards off the table.  Other highlights included the full blown pathos of ‘Washing Machine Heart’, the table flip of a fully cranked ‘Geyser’ and a sensually distanced ‘Townie’.  Last year’s brilliant album, Be The Cowboy, was mixed equally with other tracks, but that album’s ‘A Pearl’ positively crackled with energy.  She closed with a trio of the set’s most powerful songs.  ‘Your Best American Girl’ showed a grittier sound than the recorded version, while ‘I Bet On Losing Dogs’ soared with dramatic swells.  The final song ‘Drunk Walk Home’ had Mitski singing the line “fuck you and your money” with a stare and a dismissive wrist flick to the caged off VIP area (thankfully my media pass had me in with the plebes).  An expertly maneuvered and played hour of electrically cool blue moments focusing on our most miserable days.  Mitski’s characters could only dream of the organic warmth displayed by the band that preceded her and that counterpoint drove home both group’s messages whether intended or not.

The sunset stretch of the day was taken by Phosphorescent and Lord Huron.  They set the perfect tone for the day’s golden hour.  The former artist’s set was the most laid back of the day that I caught.  Matthew Houck seemed genuinely happy to be on board, and pleased the crowd with an early set take on ‘New Birth in New England’.  Later on he hit on other favorites like ‘C’est La Vie No. 2’ and atmospheric set closer ‘Song for Zula’.  Lord Huron seems to be a bit of a festival staple and the group, led by Ben Schneider, has powered up their sound since I last saw them.  The gentle groove of ‘Wait by the River’ is hard to resist and revved up versions of tracks like ‘Meet Me in the Woods’ and ‘She Lit a Fire’ were crowd favorites.

But if parties are best held after dark, this Saturday night at High Water got that exactly right.  Putting that responsibility in the hands of pros like Jenny Lewis and Leon  dsc4205Bridges was a sure fire bet.  I caught Lewis’ set the prior week in Austin, so used this opportunity to try and get closer up a few folks back of the rail.  Lewis both writes easy to love pop gems and knows how to connect with her crowd.  Only playing the opening two songs (the lovely ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ and ‘Wasted Youth’) at piano, she played the rest of the set up with her fans.  Dropping some of the slower songs from her longer set, she kept the focus on getting the party rolling.  ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ definitely hit that vibe, though for the High Water crowd the lyrics could have been shifted to ‘White Claw Seltzer and Weed’ equally well.  The groove heavy ‘Silver Lining’ and a calypso version of ‘Voyager’ were other winners.  From my balcony seat last week, I had failed to see how hard working guitarist and vocalist Emily Elbert was ably assisting Lewis.  Elbert was front and center on ‘Voyager’ and the closing ‘Arms Outstretched’ (where the stage was lit only by fans’ cell phones) and seemed to be having the time of her life.  ‘Fernando’ was a full out celebration and the pink and blue balloons launched on ‘Little White Dove’ were spotted on the kids’ playground and all the way over in Leon Bridges’ crowd over an hour later.

The ten hour day was closed out by a consummate entertainer in Leon Bridges, dressed impeccably in home state Wrangler attire and a cream colored Stetson.  I am primarily familiar with his first album, Coming Home, and had not caught his set before.  A laid back set of classic soul, R&B, and funk punctuated with a relaxed level of showmanship.  He opened with ‘If It Feels Good’, which any festival goer should be able to get behind.  A few songs later found Bridges jitter stepping to the Chattanooga Choo Choo roll of ‘Mississippi Kisses’.  Other early set highlights included his dynamic band’s take on ‘Better Man’ and the smoky croon of ‘Coming Home’.  In order to gear up for day two, we had to mosey along an hour into the set to the sultry strains of ‘Brown Skin Girl’.  Bridges was the perfect choice to close out a sometimes muggy Spring day as the weather transitioned to a sweetly scented South Carolina night.

All photos courtesy of:  Christa Joyner Moody (check out her live music gallery

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