My High Water Festival 2024 Diary (Photos + Review)

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    katepbryan
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    My High Water Festival 2024 Diary (Photos + Review)
    Published: April 29, 2024

    High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Extra Chill’s Kate Bryan gives a firsthand reflection of the High Water experience.

    This year’s High Water Festival was a study in contrasts. Marked by both brutal heat and bone-chilling rain, the event laid bare the struggle between local representation and national brands, from the artists onstage to the food and beverage options.

    I found myself delighted by unexpected sets from artists who were new to me and disappointed in the startlingly few free water fill-up stations. And I was certainly let down by the drink options (please don’t hand me a warm cup of Josh Cellars wine), so I stuck it out completely sober. 

    In order to write a comprehensive review of the festival, I decided to make a fighting effort to see every act. One of the benefits of High Water is that the artists play one at a time, allowing you the opportunity, in theory, to see each set. Here is a play-by-play of my experience. 

    Saturday, April 20th

    A hot Saturday at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    12:43pm – Arrivial

    I arrived at the venue early Saturday afternoon, tramping across railroad tracks underneath hot sunshine with a crowd of eager people sporting identical clear plastic backpacks. There was a sense of trekking toward something – music, yes, obviously, but something else. Community? 

    Strangers asked each other for directions and chatted about artists they were looking forward to seeing. There was a snake on the side of the tracks that we helped each other avoid. 

    High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    1:30pm – Al Olender

    The first performance was Al Olender, a folk driven singer/songwriter from update New York who I had never heard of prior to High Water. Her set was a pleasant way to kick off the festival, with vocals that had a smooth quality, at once rich and clear. Draped angelically in white and lavender, her look matched the sort of Americana cutesiness many have come to associate with the festival.

    “I dressed like some kind of garden swamp fairy just to talk to one of these hotties because that’s what we do it for,” Olender admitted at the end of her set. 

    2:15pm – Olivia Jean

    Olivia Jean on the Stono Stage. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Next, on the larger Stono stage, was Olivia Jean, a rockabilly-retro vision with her jet black bouffant hair. She’s known as the lead of all-girl garage rock band the Black Belles (and as Jack White’s wife), but this performance was as a solo artist. Her set was alternative rock with confident pop-rock vocals that at times reminded me of old Gwen Stefani/No Doubt.

    3pm – Leyla McCalla

    My first pleasant High Water surprise was when I ambled over to hear New Orleans-based Leyla McCalla play on the Edisto stage, having no prior introduction to the music, and found myself entranced by groove-heavy psych folk with a funky, soulful twist. McCalla whipped out a banjo on the third song and I was entranced.

    3:45pm – Houndmouth

    Houndmouth at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    One of the groups I was most looking forward to seeing on Day One was Houndmouth, and they did not disappoint. They came out swinging with “Darlin’,” a jangling singalong anthem grounded in plenty of winsome longing.

    The sun was at its most punishing during their set, and I had to, at points, enjoy the music from the comfort of a seat on the grass for fear of heat stroke. Nonetheless, it was a moving performance, especially when singer-songwriter Jillette Johnson joined the band to sing “Good For You,” giving listeners a little bit of a taste of the dynamism that occurred back when a female vocalist was with the band full-time. They finished on a high note with another favorite, “Sedona.”

    Houndmouth at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    4:45pm – The Dip

    As the sun continued its tirade, I began to feel strangely weak. Next up was The Dip, a Seattle-based funky blues rock band with a horns section. They were fun and crowd pleasing, music that, as one of my friends put it, both “you and your mom could get behind.”

    I enjoyed the set, but needed to seek refuge from the sun in the press tent for a portion of it. My body slick with a layer of perspiration, I ate a very melted Nature Valley protein bar and took slow sips from my water bottle on a plastic folding chair. I felt almost instantly better.

    Crowd during The Dip at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt)

    5:15pm – Courtney Barnett

    Courtney Barnett at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    After a respite from the sweltering heat and a quick snack break came my favorite performance of the day and, quite possibly, the entire event: Australian singer/songwriter Courney Barnett. She is an artist whose music always resonates with me, but one that I accidentally go long stretches without playing, so I was pleased to be reminded of her genius.

    Barnett dressed simply in all black, calling to mind with her shaggy hair, bare face, and unadorned elegance the artistry of fellow poetess Patti Smith. Her voice live was every bit as charming as her records, alternating between deadpan speaking, soaring vocals, and rough near-screaming.

    The crowd joined in for several songs: “Avant Gardener,” “Depreseton,” “Before You Gotta Go,” “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To.” 

    Courtney Barnett at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    She had a keen eye for when to up the intensity to perfectly excite the crowd, and watching her wail away on the guitar and writhe and jump around with frenetic intensity (especially during “Pedestrian at Best”) was both cathartic and a reminder of a particularly inspiring form of creative ferocity. 

    Barnett addressed the crowd, letting us know that she would always remember this show, not only because we were great, but because she went to Waffle House for the first time earlier that day.

    Courtney Barnett at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    6:25pm – The Walkmen

    I had every intention of checking out New York City indie rockers The Walkmen, especially because I like a few of vocalist Hamilton Leithauser’s solo tracks, but I knew if I was going to make it through the night I needed real sustenance.

    The Walkmen at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    I got chicken tenders and tater tots and shared a few with the other writers during another sweaty break in the press tent, the sound of the band’s anthemic, post-punk songs echoing against the tarp. 

    7:15pm – Fleet Foxes

    Fleet Foxes at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    The sun was finally initiating its gentle retreat beyond the horizon just in time for Fleet Foxes. The band known for its sprawling, harmony-laden folk ballads was joined by vocalist Uwade, a singer from Charlotte, NC. She shone in her yellow dress, adding gentle depth to the ethereal opening track.

    The crowd soared at the opening lines of “Can I Believe You,” one of the best tracks from the band’s 2021 album Shore. While I like Fleet Foxes, the sweeping, pastoral nature of the group’s songs can sometimes verge into mood-music territory for me, lending themselves to be played only at hyper specific types that seem suited to a dose of layered, contemplative yodeling.

    Uwade joins Fleet Foxes at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    That said, sunset after an unseasonably warm day proved to be a well-suited backdrop for “White Winter Hymnal,” “Mykonos,” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” (at the opening of which the crowd gave an audible happy sigh). 

    Uwade joined the group once again for the second to last song. I was crossing my fingers for “Helplessness Blues” to close out the set, and my desire was fulfilled. 

    Crowd during Fleet Foxes, High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    8:15pm – Shovels & Rope

    Shovels & Rope at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    I made my way over to the Edisto stage after Fleet Foxes to check in on none other than the festival curators themselves, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, aka folk rock duo Shovels & Rope. They seemed to be embracing the “rock” side of their act, leaning into an all black look, bold guitar sound, and brash attitude. 

    The two musicians sang close in each other’s faces from time to time, playing up their chemistry in a way that was clearly for the benefit of the crowd but charming nonetheless.

    Trent joked about their least-played track, “Crown Victoria,” saying that when he asked Siri to play it she instead began the band’s most-played song, a cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” featuring Shakey Graves.

    Shovels & Rope at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    He teased the opening chords of “Unknown Legend” once or twice, and while I enjoyed the newly beefed-up version of “Crown Victoria” that followed, the bit played exactly against his intention, in that it just made me want to hear “Unknown Legend.” They did deliver a different crowd-pleaser, though, “Birmingham,” and many sang along. 

    9:15pm – Noah Kahan

    Noah Kahan at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    After Shovels & Rope, the time had come for the most contentious point in the evening: Noah Kahan’s headlining set. I have never really listened to him, but I know he’s popular, and that Chris was already primed to cause a stir with his reaction, so I went in with my curiosity piqued. To his credit, he wasn’t what I expected.

    For someone who I sort of assumed was an industry plant, his commentary was rather unabashedly unhinged, and though his music leans pop country/Americana, there were elements of desperate energy that reminded me a little of the angsty music I listened to in middle school. Maybe the peculiar horror and ennui of growing up transcends genre. 

    Noah Kahan at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    In contrast to his sweet but slightly nasally singing voice, Kahan seemed to say “fuck” in every other sentence when speaking to the crowd, which, at first, seemed humanizing, then began to feel a little bit like a kid showing off that they learned a curse word.

    Many of the songs felt like a countrified Imagine Dragons, but I did enjoy “Your Needs My Needs.” Play me any desperate, impassioned sad song and chances are I’ll get on board. 

    10:15pm – Left Early

    Noah Kahan at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    I didn’t stay through Noah Kahan’s set. At some point it ceased to grab me, and I knew I had another long day coming, so I packed it in around thirty minutes early. 

    Trekking back to the car in the dark was a little confusing, but there were a few event staff members scattered around to point me in the correct direction. I saw a newly shed snakeskin on the grass and wondered: same snake?

    Since I snuck out before the crowd, I (thankfully) didn’t experience the parking lot gridlock situation that kept many who tried to leave after the end of Kahan’s set stuck at the venue for hours. 

    Noah Kahan salutes Kate good-bye. High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Sunday, April 21st

    Babe Club at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    1:20pm – Babe Club

    A last minute realization that I was running on empty and a scramble to find the nearest gas station with functioning pumps led me to arrive on festival grounds a little later than planned.

    I was booking it from the parking lot to hear Babe Club, the sole local act on the High Water roster (aside from Shovels & Rope). Opener “Need a Girl,” an ode to female friendship released back in 2020, began to ring out over the speakers as I waited in line for entry. 

    Babe Club at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    I made it to the stage for 2022 single “The Core,” a searching pop ballad centered around purpose and identity. Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell were both dressed in all black, Campbell in a long jacket, Desmond more dramatic in a floor-length skirt, bustier, and long black gloves accented with a voluminous poof. The outfit was striking against her platinum blonde bob, and her presence was incredibly charismatic. 

    Babe Club played with buoyant energy, inviting us to sing with them to new tracks and making full use of the stage. Desmond is truly a star, knowing exactly how to maneuver her body for maximum dramatic impact: writhing around, throwing her head back, collapsing onto the ground.

    Briston Maroney hanging out in the crowd during Babe Club. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).s

    She made a quick outfit change before a newer single “Optical Illusions,” and then stated “Shakespeare always said bad boys never die” to introduce a song about “ride or die” friendship.

    The duo’s newest track, the bold and danceable “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” thrilled the crowd, and everyone around me was singing. Babe Club closed with another favorite, “Lazy Lover,” and there was a palpable sense that all of the locals gathered to hear the set were proud of our hometown heroes.

    Mary Norris aka Slow Funeral plays with Babe Club, High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    2:15pm – Cut Worms

    I was excited to see Cut Worms, a band that makes up a good portion of my saved tracks but that I know virtually nothing about outside of the songs taking up space in the murky recesses of my mind. The group presented a very tame front, dressed and backed up on screen by shades of Wes Anderson yellow-orange.

    Cut Worms at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt)

    A chilly drizzle had begun. The band played songs that were familiar to me, and the crowd seemed to enjoy the jangly, retro-quirk, acoustic-guitar driven sound, but not many people sang along until “Sold My Sou” and a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

    3pm – The Heavy Heavy

    The Heavy Heavy at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    I needed a snack break during The Heavy Heavy. The rain had slowed to more of a pitter patter, and I ate an ice cream cone from local dessert genius Life Raft Treats under the flimsy shelter of a tree as I listened to the crowd-pleasing blues rock from afar. People ran from the food area to see the band cover Father John Misty’s “Real Love.” 

    4pm – The Linda Lindas

    The Linda Lindas at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Without a doubt the most surprising set from Sunday, and maybe all of High Water, was The Linda Linda’s, an all-female punk band from Los Angeles. The band alternated between three singers, one, raw and screaming, the other two, softer and more sing-song-y.

    About halfway through the set, it was revealed that the drummer was just 13 years old, and the oldest member was 19. Everyone listening went wild, their vibrant sound put in a new context seemed especially precocious. The group closed the memorable set with a cover from another legendary all-girl band, The Go-Go’s. 

    The Linda Lindas at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    4:30pm – Kevin Morby

    Kevin Morby at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Kevin Morby is another artist whose music populates my personal soundscape. I was curious to see how his stirring, thoughtful, indie folk songs that sometimes verge on spoken word would translate live.

    He opened with newer track “This is a Photograph” and just as he was playing, the rain grew much stronger, sweeping in from the east in angry gusts. I did not pack a rain jacket. I knew it was supposed to get chilly, so I thought I was thinking ahead by tying a oversized flannel shirt around my waist. I put on the shirt, but it became soaked through in a matter of minutes.

    Kevin Morby, photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    I tried to stick it out for Kevin Morby as long as I could, and I did get to hear “Campfire,” one of my favorite songs, but my hands were growing numb with cold and my hat was failing to protect my face from the bluster. I splashed through the mud to find shelter in the press tent.

    5:15pm – The Wallflowers

    I am sorry to say I was still huddled in the press tent trying in vain to dry my shirt during The Wallflowers. Jakob Dylan’s project sounded good through the tarp, though, and many of us hummed along to the 1996 hit “One Headlight.” The band closed with two Tom Petty covers, “The Waiting” and “Refugee.” 

    6:15pm – Briston Maroney

    Briston Maroney at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    My incentive for trying to warm up during The Wallflowers was that fan-favorite Briston Maroney was playing next. He drew a big crowd, even as the cold rain continued to pour. He was gracious about everybody braving the weather to see him. His voice was clear and emotive as he sang, and his guitar rang out bold and brazen.

    Chris mentioned that his set was pretty rock ‘n’ roll for how soft some of his music can be, and I agreed. Songs like “Small Talk” and “Freakin’ Out On the Interstate” made the rain-drenched listeners especially happy. 

    Briston Maroney at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    7:15pm – The Flaming Lips

    The Flaming Lips at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Taking a turn toward the more psychedelic, The Flaming Lips were up next on the Stono stage, playing through the 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirety. Finally, we saw the use of some stage props.

    The Flaming Lips featured actual giant inflatable pink robots, zorb balls, disco balls, and a flashlight, and sent giant balloons into the crowd. Every flourish was the perfect accompaniment to the bizarre and beautiful, nonsensical and profound songs from that album. Singer Wayne Coyne kept encouraging everybody to scream and dance, assuring that it would help keep us warm. 

    The Flaming Lips at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    In stark contrast to Noah Kahan’s message from the night before, Coyne requested that everyone tell the person they came with you love them, and, in fact, tell anybody you love that you love them, because you don’t know what will happen. 

    Each song was great, but “Do You Realize?,” a longtime favorite of mine, felt extra powerful as the sun set, smoke exploded from the stage, and rain poured from the sky.

    The Flaming Lips at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    8:15pm – Grace Potter

    The technicolor spectacle of The Flaming Lips had momentarily distracted me from the level of extreme discomfort from wet and cold I was experiencing, but the walk over to see Grace Potter brought it all stingingly to the forefront. At this point I had not been warm or dry since before 3pm. Still, I like some of Potter’s music and her general attitude, so I wanted to give her some attention. Behind her was a cartoon western background, accentuating her cowgirl style.

    The crowd was still fairly large. She came out swinging with “Lady Vagabond” and leaned into the country-rock-diva attitude, practically throwing her guitar to one person while another placed a shiny red fringe jacket around her as she grabbed her tambourine.

    “We’re all getting wet tonight,” she shouted. I may have had to sneak back to the press tent to attempt to de-prune my fingers at one point (we also realized in the tent that we could see our breath), but I sprinted back out to listen to her second-to-last song, the soaring, wistful “Stars.”

    9:15pm – Hozier

    At this hour, I was chilled past the point of being ok, but I knew it was my journalistic duty to see at least some of the final act of the festival: Irish songwriter Hozier. 

    The field was not quite as packed as it had been the night before for Noah Kahan, but there was still a buzz in the crowd. I didn’t have high expectations, thinking of Hozier mostly in the context of his radio hit “Take Me To Church” that I haven’t listened to in a years.

    When he began, however, I was happily startled by his gentle and good-natured manner, and his musical talented was evident. I felt he was due for more credit than I had expected to give.

    “Fucking hell, high water by name, high water by nature, you guys are such fucking troopers,” he told the crowd, alluding to the terrible weather. 

    I realized as he played that I am familiar with many more of his songs than I remembered: “Jackie and Wilson,” “To Be Alone With You,” “Cherry Wine,” “Real People Do.” Lyrically, his songs are so romantically poetic, it is hard not to be charmed. I even heard one couple got engaged during his set.

    Ultimately, my bodily discomfort grew to be too miserable to ignore, so I didn’t make it until the end, but I was swayed by Hozier enough to stick around longer than anticipated. I trudged through mud and back across train tracks to get to my car before the gridlock to exit the venue began again.

    Conclusion

    High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Reflecting now on High Water, I stand by my original criticism, especially of the lack of diversity and lack of local talent and vendors.

    Barring some exceptions, the artists featured were mostly white, and the music mostly centered around indie/alternative/Americana genres. There is value in that kind of music, but with Big Boi on the lineup last year, I was hoping for a continued increase in genre diversity in 2024.

    Of course, in order to make money, tickets need to be sold – but there is no doubt in my mind that with a few more popular local acts on the bill, Charleston’s music community would turn up to support them.

    Local love for Babe Club at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Locals shell out money for ticketed events all of the time (Charleston Wine + Food comes to mind). In that same spirit, what about local artists, vendors, food trucks? Every year, the local options dwindle, and we’re left with the likes of Cabot Cheese and Verde. 

    There are monetary factors that go into these decisions, and I don’t want to seem naive. It’s just a disappointment to see something generic when there is so much creativity and talent ripe for discovery in Charleston.

    High Water Festival delivered a weekend of good music and brought strangers together over a shared experience. It fulfilled the most important requirements, but there is plenty of room for improvement next year.

    Good times at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).
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