Story and all photos by Bill Foster
Day two of High Water began with T. Hardy Morris of Athens, Georgia, a founding member of the Dead Confederates. Morris’ live shows can be raucous, but High Water showcased the more twangy, country side of his music. If you’re into literate Southern rock, give him a listen.
It wasn’t long after when Tennessee’s own Valerie June opened proceedings on the main stage. With cat-eye glasses, a unique fashion sense and an improbable set of dreadlocks, June was captivating even before she began to perform. However, when she opened her mouth, she sang in a piercing wail that was equally capable of descending into a sultry growl; all the while, she told stories of love and spirituality with a Southern accent that one would suspect was parody had it come out of anyone else. Backed by a tight four-piece band, June played acoustic guitar, banjo and ukulele, and she showed off some impressive chops on an electric, too. I first saw June at Bonnaroo in 2014, and this show was leaps and bounds beyond that. She has become an artist to watch.
Joshua Hedley was the next act on the Edisto Stage, and the former “Mayor of Lower Broad” delivered a set of tight, cosmopolitan country highlighted by his smooth tenor and furious instrumentals by his excellent backing band. Hedley just announced a show in Knoxville at the Open Chord in September, which will be well worth checking out.
Returning to the main stage, I witnessed Tank and the Bangas playing before a huge crowd. From the first note on, it developed into the best show of the festival. Lead singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball was a bundle of energy, waving scarves, making every imaginable face, dancing on the edge of the stage and exhorting both the crowd and the band to deliver more and more energy to rival her own. Performing as an eight-piece, the New Orleans band was funky and soulful, matching the passion in Ball’s vocals as she swooped, soared and imitated character voices. The shortness of the set prevented Ball from delivering some of the group’s weirder music or some of the slam poetry that first earned her notoriety, but the result was a nonstop, 45-minute-long dance party. Although you missed your chance to catch Tank and the Bangas in Knoxville at Preservation Pub, you can catch them at the Bijou Theatre on May 15.
Back at Edisto, M. Ward had the distinction of being the only artist of the festival not to start on time; as a consequence, he performed a mere 30-minute set. Still, after starting off with a surf-inspired, twangy instrumental, Ward delivered the goods with such songs as “Four Hours in Washington” and “You Still Believe in Me.” Shakey Graves followed.
Graves’ first tour was a opening slot with Shovels & Rope, so Charleston holds a special place in the performer’s heart. Graves was in fine form, opening with his signature acoustic-guitar-and-suitcase-bass drum-solo performance for two songs before bringing out his “boys,” his current four-piece band that proceeded to electrify the crowd with a bashing, furious performance.
On the Edisto Stage, Hamilton Leithauser was one of the biggest surprises of the festival for me. Entering the show, I was familiar with “I Had a Dream That You Were Mine,” his duet album with Rostam, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Nonetheless, the former frontman for The Walkmen had me watching in rapt attention from the opening note on. Due to family obligations, festival curators Shovels & Rope would be my last show of the day – but what a show it was.
With a new, tasteful, wooden stage setup, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst continue to redefine what a two-piece band can do. Alternating between acoustic guitars, drums and keyboard (they both play all of the instruments), the couple was charming and exuberant throughout, repeatedly thanking the crowd for making the festival it helped to create and curate such a success. At one point, the pair even stopped mid-song in order to shout out a hello to a passing container ship. Although there are larger headliners, Shovels & Rope demonstrated to me that they should be the closing performance at every future incarnation of this festival. No one better captures the charm and the artistry of Charleston.