A look back at the opening day of Charleston’s High Water Festival

High Water Fest 2018

Story and all photos by Bill Foster

The first day of Charleston’s second-year waterfront festival could only be described as “blustery.”

Stiff winds off the nearby bay dampened the sound from the stage and made the temperature 10 degrees colder than normal. However, the music on display on the two stages was as scintillating and exciting as the festival’s genesis last year.

My day began with Weaves, a Toronto-based indie-pop band that has been nominated for Juno awards but which is relatively unknown here. The sparse early crowd was treated to a blistering set led by charismatic frontwoman Jasmyn Burke and punctuated by staccato bursts of guitar noise from co-founder Morgan Waters. This is a band to watch out for in the future.

Nashvillian (via Asbury Park, New Jersey) Nicole Atkins was next, performing a delightful set of guitar-pop backed up by a muscular combo. Ian Felice of Felice Brothers fame was next. Backed only by a single bass player, he concentrated on songs from his recent solo debut“In the Kingdom of Dreams.” The album is brilliant lyrically, but it’s not the happiest record ever made, and Felice seemed a bit morose trying to carry off such a sparse project in the bright afternoon sun.

Nicole Atkins

The day really got going with the Old 97’s. Playing a diverse set that spanned from their 25-year-old debut to their most-recent record, the band performed with flair and aplomb. Rhett Miller flailed his arms, flipped his hair and engaged the crowd. “Stoned,” “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town,” “Good With God,” “Rollerskate Skinny” and “Let’s Get Drunk & Get it On” all were highlights of the rollicking set.

Taking a break to brave the extraordinarily long food truck lines, the next band I caught was St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Opening with “Crumbling Light Posts,” “Flow With It” and “Like a Mighty River,” lead singer Paul Janeway’s voice was as powerful and soulful as ever while the wonderful band, strengthened by a couple additional horns, provided a strong yet supple background.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones

Brandi Carlile was next on the main stage. Carlile is one of the best live acts touring today, and she delivered a spectacular set. In concert, Carlile is a band much more than a solo artist; three microphones are set up front, Carlile in the center and flanked on each side by twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth (guitar and bass), with whom she has performed since 2004. The audience was fervent – in fact, they were one of the most excited crowds I’ve ever seen at a festival – with everyone in sight singing every word to hits like “Raise Hell” and “The Story.” Carlile punctuated things with powerful covers of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Madman Across the Water.”

Brandi Carlile

For the final show on the Edisto Stage, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy played as the sun set and the winds really kicked up. Wearing a down coat and a ski cap, Tweedy opened with “Via Chicago” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” in a brisk set that included rarities like “Passenger Side” from “A.M.” and unrecorded song “Noah’s Flood.” Holding a large crowd captive with just a single acoustic is a tricky endeavor, but Tweedy is one of the few artists that can reliably deliver.

Jeff Tweedy

Finally, at 8:45 (every single show of the first day started on time to the minute), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (including wife Amanda Shires) took the stage in the only show of the day performed in the dark. Isbell has come a long way from his days of playing in Knoxville at Barley’s or on the third floor of Patrick Sullivan’s, and it shows. Backed by an evocative and interesting new stage setup, they hit the stage already on fire, slamming into “Super 8,” “Hope the High Road” and “24 Frames” in quick succession. It was a short set by his standards, and some slower staples like “Elephant” or “If We Were Vampires” went missing, but the upbeat set included a bouncy “Codeine,” “Alabama Pines,” “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up.” He concluded with the Drive-By Truckers warhorse “Never Gonna Change.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

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