- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
Someone forgot to hit the reset button on the party that started Saturday night. Day 2 of High Water Festival was already in high gear as we strolled into the not so dulcet sounds of Thelma and the Sleaze. We didn’t catch the bulk of their set, but if you told me they had been playing since the night before I would have believed you. The roar from the band and the crowd weren’t what you typically order up on a Sunday morning.
But given the train that kept rolling from there, it was a lineup custom made to celebrate the day and keep the storms at bay. The forecast of a storm front coming through kept getting pushed back and back until it never actually hit. After three years of threats, I’m convinced the windswept point of Riverfront Park never actually gets rain.
The first full set we caught was of local group Ranky Tanky. Fronted by vocalist Quiana Parler, the quintet had a full rolling Low Country boil going in no time. They opened with new single ‘Freedom’. The nervous guitar line set the stage for a classic protest song with a modern angle - “oh say can you see we ain’t free”. Though starting on a serious note, things got funky quickly with the call and response of ‘Ranky Tanky’ (the best song named after a band since ‘Love Theme From Kiss’). Lead guitarist Clay Ross led the band and the crowd through this joyful clamor of a playground song. Taking many of their songs from a tradition of gospel spirituals, the highlight of the set came from a soulfully sung ‘Beat ‘em Down’ that borrowed the melody from the hymn ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’. A beautiful moment from a classy act.
Sticking with the goings on at the main stage, next up was a jazz band. But given the spirit of the festival, not your parent’s jazz that was listened to in quiet contemplation and worrying how to pronounce Montreux. This was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans that play the type of down and dirty Dixieland jazz that’s good for a little booty shaking. Or just simply for people that like a good ol' trombone solo at the hands of Ronell Johnson (pictured on Gig Review page). My only beef about jazz is I can never pick out the song titles, but suffice it to say they played a lot of high energy songs that culminated in a second line parade through the audience and to the back of the viewing area. I love New Orleans and this took me right back to the feel of Frenchmen Street. I even got to take place in one of those wedding parades once where the cops block the streets, you march behind the band drinking champagne, and feel like royalty. That’s why you should catch these guys so you can feel the same.
Showing a bit of variety from the rest of the lineup, Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll was up next. Carll pulled off the best intro, by introducing himself as Hayes Carll and the Gulf Coast Orchestra to a crowd that probably only partially knew he was in fact him. He also got in the best joke by asking for the on-stage smoke machine to be cut down by 80% (it was the middle of the day). I haven’t kept too close of tabs on Carll since his Trouble In Mind album, but he proved himself worthy of the Texas songwriting tradition. He started with a shit kicking anthem worthy of Billy Joe Shaver on ‘If I May Be So Bold’ and carried on from there. He played plenty of songs from his new album What It Is, including highlight ‘None’ya’, but also hit some older tunes. ‘KMAG YOYO’ was a sizzling soldier’s take on ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ crossed with Eddie Rabbit’s ‘I Love the Rainy Nights’. But Carll also showed the sturdiness of his earlier songs by playing a much slowed down version of ‘Drunken Poet’s Dream’ (complete with mandolin, tambourine, and high harmonies) and a loose as a goose ramble through ‘I Got A Gig’.
Take note festival organizer types, if you want to sell a bunch of tickets to your festival put Dr. Dog on your lineup. They also bring their own moss. I don’t know much about these Philly based dudes, but their sound has always struck me as “half a bubble off of plumb” and that’s something I can always get behind. Apparently too with their rabid fan base that was out in full force mid-day. Vocal duties are shared between Scott McMicken (lead guitar) and Toby Leaman (bass). I much preferred McMicken’s off-kilter and wavery vocal leads that share the imperfect charm of someone like Wayne Coyne. Set highlights included the ragtag feel of ‘Turning the Century’ and crowd favorite sing-along ‘Lonesome’. They also showed some range going from the soft-hearted ‘The Breeze’ to the more anthemic ‘That Old Black Hole’.
Given almost everyone in the park was over at Dr. Dog, it took a while for fans to filter in for Durand Jones and the Indications’ early evening set. Their old school soul sound is grounded in a retro vibe, but lyrically they are forward-looking. Things smoked early on the muscular ‘Make a Change’ with Jones’ can’t miss growl that was punctuated with sax bursts. My second time to see him, Jones somehow sings with eyes closed but also manages to dance all over the stage. Seemingly a dangerous thing to do, but he's mastered it well. The group also has a bit of an unfair advantage with drummer Aaron Fraser’s high falsetto that creeps into ‘Don’t You Know’ and then takes over on the beautifully laid back ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ Things got more topical on the Marvin Gaye styled protest of ‘Morning in America’ from their new album American Love Call. But Jones’ ended up playing to the festival atmosphere by closing with the blissed out groove of ‘Long Way Home’, the harder funk of ‘Groovy Babe’, and a cool as the breeze cover of the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Yet another band that would be great to catch in an extended headlining set.
From here, festival hosts Shovels and Rope picked up the mood and propelled us into the evening. Nattily dressed in matching electric blue suits, it always amazes me how Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent can carry a big crowd armed with so little. Taking turns on drums, guitars, and vocals with a little keyboard and harmonica thrown in, they easily charm. Not only celebrating the third year of High Water, they also released their strongest album to date in By Blood just two days before. Though brand new, the songs from the album truly stood on their own. The ragged tremolo of ‘I’m Comin’ Out’ fits the duo’s style perfectly and the harmonica-fueled ‘C’mon Utah!’ sounded great pouring out over the field of fans. The stripped down and older ‘This Ride’ was accented with a simple synth rhythm, while they belted out a solid duet on ‘Carry Me Home’. The anthem ‘Mississippi Nuthin’’ (they do like their apostrophes!) sounds like a Springsteen epic crossed with the melody of the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ and was a set peak. I’ve seen the couple play at least five times and this was the first time ‘Birmingham’ was dropped from the set. A clear indicator that their new songs are some of their best.
The Sunday night headliners were another group I’ve seen quite a few times. The Head and the Heart frankly sounded a bit rough the last time I had seen them at 2018's Moon River Festival - Jonathan Russell (pictured above) seemed to be doing something of a star turn that night and crowd favorite Charity Rose Thielen sounded under the weather. But there was no need to worry as this outing was probably the best I have seen from them. Pianist Kenny Hensley sounded fantastic and helped to power a lot of the songs. They opened with the yet to be released ‘Living Mirage’ which gave hope for their upcoming new album of the same name. Likewise, keyboards were at the core of ‘Only In Dreams’ and ‘Another Story’, which is always my favorite to hear live. They gave ‘Let’s Be Still’ a fuller sound without things getting bloated and ‘Lost In My Mind’ from their excellent debut album is still a set highlight. Charity Rose was given an opportunity to take the lead on the melodic ‘Honeybee’. Closing out the night and the festival was, of course, their perennial closer ‘Rivers and Roads’, but this time they were joined by the irrepressible guys from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band which gave the song a bit more flair. A celebratory close to another great High Water Festival. Can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves for next year!
All photos by Christa Joyner Moody (click here for access to her live music photo gallery)