High Water Festival 2023 took place this past weekend at North Charleston’s Riverfront Park. The annual music festival is curated by local Americana duo Shovels & Rope and features two full days of music across two stages along the banks of the Cooper River.
This year’s festival featured headliners Beck, Wilco, and Rainbow Kitten Surprise supported by a lineup that was folk-heavy as always, but also seemed to include more diversity than ever — even within the singer-songwriter genre itself.
With the inclusion of out-of-the-ordinary (for High Water) acts like the legendary Outkast co-founder, Big Boi, the gritty punk-influenced indie rock band Bully, and even experimental pop headliner Rainbow Kitten Surprise, we can see the event continung to expand into a more diverse array of genres, while also staying true to its roots.
One of the cool things about High Water is the fact that there are only two stages, so you can see every act on the lineup without any conflicts. Of course this is also a limiting factor for them, but the venue is only so big.
2023 was also the first year that Extra Chill had a team on the ground at High Water, with myself and photographer Steve Aycock in the mix, and we were excited for what the weekend had in store.
Enjoy the official Extra Chill review of High Water Fest 2023 below, with a photo gallery at the end that includes even the sets I didn’t highlight here.
Day One – Saturday, April 15th
Charleston had been dealing with the dying breaths of winter over the past few weeks, with a few late cold snaps and lots of rain. However, for Saturday we had clear, blue skies all day with plenty of sunshine. Sure this brought some heat, but in terms of Charleston’s weather, it doesn’t get much better than a nice day in mid-April.
Of the two days, Saturday’s lineup felt like it was geared toward a younger, more party-oriented crowd while Sunday had many of the heavy-hitting artists that I was personally excited to see. Still, I found myself pleasantly surprised by several acts on Saturday, and overall it was a fun day of music.
Madi Diaz was the second artist of the weekend and she unexpectedly became one of my favorite sets of the entire day. The Nashville-based songwriter brought a genuine energy that really resonated.
Rather than being thrown off by a production mishap early in the set, Madi expressed her excitement and appreciation for the crew who resolved the issue quickly, and you could feel the pure relief and joy shared between both the musicians and the crowd.
Another moment later in the set brought us even deeper into the feels, surrounding her song “Crying in Public”, from the 2021 album History of a Feeling. When she played the opening lines, she noticed that some people in the front of the crowd recognized the song.
Madi clearly did not expect to see this, and her reaction was really heartwarming. There were several people “Crying in Public” in this moment, both myself and Madi Diaz included.
Charleston, West Virgina’s very own Sierra Ferrell caught our attention in the late afternoon, first with the immaculate floral headdress, fluffy blue dress, and sparkling boots. Then it was the powerful performance backed by a three-piece string band.
The quartet was setup close together on stage, a presence that accentuated the contrast between the woman leading the group and the three men behind her in their uniforms of denim and hats. Even without a drummer, this was the most energetic set of the day thus far.
Sierra took us through bluegrass, country, folk, and even some songs that felt like sea shanties. Like a string band salad. We enjoyed the smooth transitions between different vibes, as if it were just the natural thing to do.
A highlight came late in the set, during a period of slower songs. Sierra told the crowd that a bunch of artists had gotten together to play some Willie Nelson songs in honor of his 90th birthday. Then, she launched into a wonderful cover of “Seven Spanish Angels”, the haunting 1984 duet originally sung by Willie and Ray Charles.
The eclectic style of Sierra Ferrell is hard to dislike, and even when we had back-to-back country and folk acts before this, her music was different enough to make it interesting. We’ve been checking out her 2021 album Long Time Coming and we recommend that you do too.
Not only was Outkast co-founder Big Boi the only hip-hop act on the bill at High Water Festival 2023, he was also the first hip-hop artist to be booked in the history of the event.
At first glance it might seem out of place, but considering that the festival aims to be seen as a cultural event in Charleston, and started out appealing to only a small subset of the city’s population, the fact that they booked any hip-hop at all is a step in the right direction. This is something that the event has been criticized for even on this very website.
Also, for that first hip-hop artist to be a member of a group that has universal appeal makes it a smart booking overall for High Water Festival. They didn’t quite give upper middle class Charleston Lil Nas X.
Everybody loves Outkast, and Big Boi went through many of the hits that you’d hope to hear at an Outkast set — “ATLiens”, “Rosa Parks”, “So Fresh, So Clean”, “Ms. Jackson”. Just back to back bangers at 5:15pm — an odd time for sure.
Big Boi let his partner Sleepy Brown take the lead for a few tracks from the duo’s 2021 album Can’t Sleep before going right back into classic Outkast bangers. To close things out, he did the “The Way You Move” followed by “Kryptonite (I’m On It)” and finally, the “Int’l Player’s Anthem”.
Overall, Big Boi’s set was exactly the kind of party that you might have hoped for going into it. It was also a very interesting, unpredictable booking that we would love to see more of in the future.
Unfortunately, no photographers were allowed in the pit for Big Boi’s set, so we don’t have any photos to share from this one, but we did include a video from our friends at CLTure.
A highlight for many on Saturday came with alternative pop act Bleachers’ 7:15pm set on the Stono stage. Personally, this one wasn’t quite it for me but I do recognize why everybody else seemed so amped up about it.
They started with “91” and “How Dare You Want More” from their recent album Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night before bringing out the unannounced surprise guest, sad girl icon Lana Del Rey. The crowd lost their shit in this moment, as to be expected.
Lana and frontman Jack Antonoff then shared the stage for a duet on “Margaret” off her 2023 album Did you know there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd.
The set became much more of a party later on, which leads me to my main critique of Bleachers. Jack Antonoff certainly has the ability to sing his songs, but it seemed he was more interested in getting the audience to sing them for him. This works when done sparingly but it was overkill here in my opinion.
During said party, Bleachers brought out their second high profile musical guest of the evening, none other than Sunday night’s actual headliner, Beck. Together they did a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”.
Enjoy a video from the Lana Del Rey sit-in below.
Rainbow Kitten Surprise
Headliner Rainbow Kitten Surprise took the stage to close out Saturday evening, for their first return to Charleston since the weather-related fiasco at the Woodlands Nature Reserve last July. This band is only getting bigger and bigger and it’s clear to see why.
Each member of the band has a unique aura about them, and their interactions and outfits all provide a stimulating visual. Especially notable are the interactions between lead singer Ela Melo and guitarist/vocalist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller. They bounce off each other, with Melo having the manic energy while Keller remains grounded at the head of the stage.
The last time I saw them was at Bonnaroo 2017, and I was impressed with their energy back then. They are now fully established as a band and are going full throttle into 2023 with sets coming up at Bonnaroo, Hangout, and four sold out nights in Colorado in July.
Just before High Water they unveiled a new single, “Drop Stop Roll”, which came second to last in their set filled with hits from all across their catalogue, and not a single cover.
Check out their new single below.
Day Two – Sunday, April 16th
Sunday morning presented rain in Charleston, but luckily it passed over early enough that the festival grounds had time to dry out before the gates opened. Even more lucky was that the rain was gone after that single burst in the morning, because there was lots of excellent music to be seen on Sunday at High Water.
As I mentioned earlier, I felt this day had more firepower in terms of musicianship, notably in the two headliners, Wilco and Beck. Both artists are both well-respected and influential in their own right, and have long been heavyweights in alternative music.
There was much more to enjoy, aside from the headliners, so let’s get into it.
She Returns From War
Led by songwriter Hunter Park, She Returns From War is a name that many readers of Extra Chill and Charleston music scene regulars are familiar with. Hunter has long been a staple in the community and anyone who has seen her perform knows that both her songs and her soul are beautiful.
Hunter was up there with a full band that included several other familiar faces including Joel Hamilton, Wolfgang Zimmerman, Christian Chidester, Camille Rhoden, and JP “Chapa”. It was a truly special thing to see these people on this stage, providing trustworthy musical support for Hunter and the songs that we’ve all sung at Royal American together for years — plus several new ones.
To put it this way — I walked up to the stage just as they played the opening notes to “Swamp Witch” off the 2018 South Carolina album of the year, Mirrored Moon Dance Hall, and by the time Hunter finished singing the first verse I could barely hold myself together.
Hunter’s energy was so pure and beautiful, and she was clearly so happy to be on that stage. As many of us know, it was a well-deserved moment that had been a long time coming. She Returns From War had been booked for the 2020 event that was canceled, and things felt like they were coming full circle.
This was especially true because Hunter revealed on stage that we can expect a new She Returns From War album this year, titled Ruthless. The album has been in the works for five years, and includes several songs she performed at High Water like the title track and “It’s Always Something”.
Stay tuned for more news on that album, and watch as Hunter’s career skyrockets.
J Roddy Walston’s band Palm Palm hopped on the lineup last minute after Ezra Furman sadly had to cancel their performance due to illness, as shared on Twitter. While it was a bummer for some not to see Ezra perform, Palm Palm’s pure rock ‘n’ roll was a welcome presence on Sunday afternoon.
Palm Palm have now performed at the last three High Water Festivals, and they even played a pre-party on Friday night at the Music Farm in downtown Charleston. They’re becoming regulars, and J Roddy himself often pops up at The Royal American to play solo, making him another familiar face in the scene to follow that excellent She Returns From War Set.
This band brings elements of everything that people love about rock, from extravagant vocal howls a-la Led Zeppelin (but cooler than Greta Van Fleet), to the kind of driving beats you’d find in 80s Bowie.
Black Opry Revue
One of the most unique bookings on the lineup was the Black Opry Revue. It featured a rotating cast of Black Opry members who came up and performed one song each, as a showcase for what the organization is doing for the genre of country music.
The Black Opry seeks to connect black musicians, fans, and industry professionals who enjoy country, Americana, blues, and folk music. They bring awareness to the often-overlooked fact that despite white people having adopted it, country and blues music has roots in black culture.
The entire set was impressive and each artist brought something unique to the table, but Nikki Morgan’s “24 Hours” stood out to me the most in terms of songwriting. I especially liked when she took her sunglasses off prior to singing the final verse, as it raised the tension and sent a wave of excitement through the crowd.
Listen to “24 Hours”, released in February on Bandcamp below:
Lucius returned for their second High Water Festival, after performing at the inaugural event in 2017. Their set was highly-anticipated and the field in front of the Stono stage was beginning to fill in, however mother nature had also begun to show her face.
It seemed that for no fault of the performers or the production staff, the wind blowing straight off the river directly at the stage was causing problems with the sound. The hanging stacks as well as the screens on either side of the stage were beginning to sway in the heavier gusts, and the whole stage even cut out momentarily.
Luckily, the wind laid down in time for the performance to really get going, and we soon saw the first of two musical guests — Madi Diaz, with whom they did the 2016 Lucius track “Dusty Trails”. Later in the set, they brought out Shovels & Rope for “Strangers”.
The wind would later pick up even more during Orville Peck’s set, and while it didn’t cause too many sound issues then, the screens and stacks were swaying quite a bit in the breeze. The screens were eventually lowered to the ground prior to Wilco’s performance.
Bully had us back over at Edisto and out of the direct breeze from the river, and it was time to rock out with the heaviest band on the lineup. This is another unexpected but appreciated booking from the team at High Water Fest, and it points to the possibility that the festival will continue to expand its horizons going forward.
My favorite quality of Bully is how they play both simple arrangements that focus on a tight sound and more expansive arrangements that are buildup and release oriented. I first caught them at Shaky Knees in 2016 and I was impressed, and while the band I saw at High Water may not have been as mind-blowing as the hungry band I saw in 2016 was, it was still an enjoyable and welcome part of the lineup.
Frontwoman Alicia Bongonno ended the set by asking us if we were excited to see Wilco, because she had been waiting for the opportunity to see them for a long time. The answer was yes, we were all excited to see Wilco.
Wilco’s performance was a full circle moment for me, as they have long been one of my favorite bands and their set at Shaky Knees in 2015 marked the first time I had truly gotten my shit rocked, mentally, by a concert.
From that day on I had been chasing the opportunity to see them again, and the stars finally aligned for me at High Water Fest this year, right in my own backyard. This was Wilco’s first time performing in Charleston as a full band since 2008.
The setlist was naturally Cruel Country heavy, as the album was just released last year, but we also got plenty of old favorites.
After opening with “I Am My Mother” and “Cruel Country” off the new album, they rolled into fan-favorite, “Handshake Drugs”, followed by the more distorted “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, both off 2004’s A Ghost is Born.
This goes to show Wilco’s versatility as a band, as they can go from these cosmic country songs into an experimental rock sound on a moment’s notice, flipping between gentle melodies and big noise with ease. To me it’s like the Beatles meets the Grateful Dead.
Lead guitarist Nels Cline pulled out the lap steel for Cruel Country song “Taking It Out On You”. They were then joined by Lucius for a heartfelt rendition of “Jesus Etc.” See an audience video of that performance below.
The set also saw performances of “Impossible Germany”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and “A Shot in the Arm”. It closed with a leap back to the Being There days with the final two songs “I Got You” and “Outtaside (Outta Mind)”.
Overall, Wilco delivered a show that was everything I had been waiting 8 years to see. Afterwards, I had to collect myself so I wandered out to the boardwalk in between the two stages and listened to Shovels & Rope from a distance before heading back to Stono stage for the final artist of the weekend, Beck.
Beck’s DIY roots and subsequent rise to international fame have earned him a very diverse fanbase, making him an ideal headliner for an event like High Water Fest. He took the status in stride and truly gave a headliner-worthy performance, with a full 32-song setlist.
He came out solo, positioned at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar. There was a single spotlight and some backlighting, and on the screens beside the stage, which had now been raised back up, it brought to mind the image of Bob Dylan.
The lighting crew behind this should be quite proud, as it was especially striking when he covered Neil Young’s “Old Man”. He seemed to know that he was giving this impression, and he was enjoying the idea of it.
After a few acoustic numbers, Beck brought out the full band to begin his mashing together of genres that would close out the festival. The beauty of Beck is how he can do this while still being unapologetically himself. You hear rock in songs like “Go It Alone” and “Night Running”, but then you get straight hip-hop with “Loser” and funk/soul with “Debra”. It becomes a little bit like, what can’t he do?
In the end, Beck sent us home on a high note. The rain managed to hold off all day long, and as the venue shut down for the evening we were greeted by what started as a light drizzle…
See a full gallery of photos from High Water 2023 below. All photos by Steve Aycock.