High Water isn’t just a music festival. It’s a celebration of the capital-S South, a region rich in tradition, culture and personality. And the event curated by Charleston’s own Shovels & Rope takes special care in assuring all three of those elements are well-represented. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, the married musical pair behind Shovels & Rope, have hosted the music and food festival for three years now at Riverfront Park in North Charleston, and this year’s event not only highlighted some of the best and most exciting acts in roots and rock (Mitski, Jenny Lewis and Shovels & Rope themselves among them), but also artists of a different variety: southern chefs, sommeliers, brewers and bakers. The festival is still in its infancy, but Hearst and Trent, along with lots of help from those aforementioned makers, have already accomplished the ideal balance of music and experiences—no easy feat in festival planning. This weekend we sat family-style at the Pass the Peas brunch event on Saturday morning and broke bread with total strangers. We shared Lagunitas brews at The Porch, a little corner of the park stocked with respite-ready rocking chairs. We watched Texas-born headliner Leon Bridges rock the crowd into bliss with his soulful blues. We danced with New Orleans jazz giants Preservation Jazz Hall Band. High Water belongs in Charleston, one of the best destinations in the South for food, drinks and friendly folks. From Mitski dancing on a table to the goat cheese tortelloni we’ll be talking about for months, here are the best moments from High Water 2019.
The War and Treaty’s soul-healing songs
Shovels & Rope
weren’t the only married couple performing at this year’s High Water fest. Michael and Tanya Trotter, who record as The War and Treaty, gave a generous, jubilant performance on Saturday afternoon, sharing songs from their 2018 album Healing Tide. Michael has said of their The War and Treaty: “I want people to feel we care.” And their warmth is certainly contagious. The Trotters’ songs are soul music as catharsis. The love they have for each other is so plentiful it ripples into the crowd and lifts everyone off their feet.
Mitski’s breathtaking performance art
In much the same way that the colorful characters on Be the Cowboy are mostly fictional, Mitski’s stage persona is highly exaggerated. She puts on a front, and her High Water set was as much a performance art piece as it was a musical showcase. Dancing, rolling and laying, she acted almost the entire set from atop a white table, which, rather than a guitar, served as the centerpiece. In destroying the typical setup, Mitski built a mesmerizing new universe on stage that was impossible to turn away from.
Phosphorescent’s dusky daydreams
As this weekend proved over and over again, Shovels & Rope really fashioned the perfect springtime bill. Phosphorescent followed by Lord Huron on Saturday evening was a festival-goer’s dream come true—both artists specialize in blooming, experimental ballads full of natural imagery and interesting textures. Phosphorescent’s Mathew Houck performed songs from 2013’s Muchacho, including the beloved “Song for Zula,” as well as cuts from the follow-up, 2018’s C’est La Vie.
Lord Huron’s escapist folk-rock
Lord Huron’s music is meant to be heard outdoors: on the beach as the sun is rising, by a dwindling campfire or as you’re walking those Strange Trails described on their 2015 album. The scenic Riverfront Park was a natural environment for the indie folksters to air their cavernous, transportive songs. And it didn’t hurt that the sun was sinking below the Cooper River right as their set was drawing to a close, painting festival goers in an orange light. Their most recent album, last year’s Vide Noir, sounded decidedly more rock ‘n’ roll, so their set was a healthy mix of lively new material and their more peaceful classics, like the woodsy wedding hit “Ends of the Earth.”
The livewire Jenny Lewis
It was completely dark outside by the time Jenny Lewis appeared on the Edisto Stage Saturday night, but her person was bright enough to light the entire Riverfront Park—and not just because she donned a floor-length sequined dress. The songs on her stunning new album On The Line are positively radiant. Each glows and gleams with a kind of glam only Lewis can pull off, and watching her perform those dazzling tunes—from the searing rock ‘n’ roll of star single “Red Bull & Hennessy” to the hang-loose declarations of “Wasted Youth”—was further proof On The Line may be her best solo effort to date. Perhaps keeping the festival setting in mind, Lewis also treated the crowd to Rilo Kiley hits (“Silver Lining,” “With Arms Outstretched”) and her popular solo gems like “She’s Not Me,” “Just One of the Guys” and “The Voyager.”
Leon Bridges’ romantic grooves
On his first album Coming Home, High Water headliner Leon Bridges introduced himself as neo-soul’s next suave suitor. With the follow-up, last year’s Good Thing, Bridges appeared more grown up—not just suave, but sexy. He proved on “Beyond” and “Forgive You” he’s the still tender, big-hearted beau who sang love songs like “Coming Home” and “River,” but he can just as effortlessly transition to the lustful lover on tunes like “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” and “Mrs.” This weekend he was a little bit of both—sweet and smooth as he glided across the stage, then smouldering. He incited a crowd-wide swoon when he sang of lifelong commitment on “Beyond,” then he persuaded a few thousand blushes upon the delivery of “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be).” In summary, both sides of Leon Bridges are delightful to behold.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s mobile party
Day two of the festival was off to a spirited start when the New Orleans jazz vets in Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought decades of musical tradition and energy to the stage, transmitted it to the crowd and then carried it down the stage steps themselves. With Ben Jaffe, son of tuba player Allan Jaffe who founded the collective in the early 1960s, at the helm, the lively septet honored one southern city’s musical history while performing for another. Rather than exit stage right or left at the end of their set, Jaffe led the entire band through the crowd in a sort of conga line. Audience members latched on, and a jazz show collapsed into a party.
Hayes Carll’s gritty country wit
Country fans convened at the Edisto stage on Sunday evening to absorb Hayes Carll’s enlightened southern stories and good-humored harmonica. Folks in Jason Isbell t-shirts and bandanas dotted my periphery as Carll dryly told the tale of a soured relationship on “None’ya” to the sound of generous whoops and hollers that seemed to say “We’ve been there, dude.” Later, he divulged the tragic backstory of “Jesus and Elvis” and admitted a bard’s deepest desires on “If I May Be So Bold,” both highlights from his new album What It Is. Carll’s immersive set was like a little slice of Nashville on the riverbanks in Charleston.
Pass the Peas Brunch
The practice of breaking bread with other people has become hastened. We rush through meals like they’re just another task on the ever-expanding to-do list that shapes our busy days. So when we sat down at long, family-style tables to the spread at the Pass the Peas brunch event, flanked by strangers on either side, it felt luxurious. But then the five (!) courses flew by. Pass the Peas is not your average brunch with mimosas and gossip—it’s a culinary experience, curated by master local chefs (in Saturday’s case, Jacques Larson, the brain behind high-class eatery Obstinate Daughter in neighboring Sullivan’s Island, and China-born, New York-raised Shuai Wang, recently nominated for the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef). Each course was accompanied by libations hand-picked by Cappie Peete, one of only a handful of advanced female sommeliers working in the region. The expansive menu included cocktails created by Craig Nelson (the mastermind at local drinkery Proof), pistachio cake, fresh seafood, goat-cheese stuffed tortelloni and, of course, a spring pea salad.