By Tony Attwood
High Water 2007
I would imagine that performing a song about a flood, indoors, on stage, requires quite a bit of re-thinking. But doing it with a song that has already been rethought so much that as I’ve noted elsewhere, it really has little if anything to do with the original that Dylan cites as his source, is doubly hard going.
And yet here, in this live performance, Bob does manage to portray the desolation, and somehow link us back to the cited Charley Patton, while taking us on a journey into the horrors of flooding, without actually making it a horror show.
Which when put like that makes the performance sound pretty amazing, which it is.
In fact, this recording operates at so many contradictory levels that it is neigh on impossible to write about (not that this is going to stop me).
For way beyond any attempt to link these lyrics to reality, this version of High Water really attracts me not because of Bob’s singing but particularly because of the re-arrangement of the music. Just listen to the start before Bob’s voice comes in – and then hear the way he sings against this minimal accompaniment. And then the full accompaniment hits us at “Nothing Standing There”. This really is inventiveness within a minimalist musical construction based on just one chord until we get to the short chorus lines which give us two chords more.
And if the technicalities of the music are not of interest to you, just think of the sound and the images of flooding. At that level too, this performance is a masterpiece.
For the notion of flooding from which one cannot escape is enough to bring a total sense of panic to most people, but Bob manages through this arrangement to deliver not so much panic, as a sense of desolation and desperation. There is also a type of sparceness in the musical arrangement that has me thinking of being in the roadway above the water but watching the flood rise and rise on both sides, and there being no way out.
Besides this, the way Bob sings gives the sense of trying to escape, but at the same time the accompaniment gives the sense of water everywhere exactly as the lyrics suggest.
With this sort of arrangement, it is very easy for every instrumentalist to get carried away with their own input into the chaos, and as a result the music would become a mess, but this is controlled and indeed at times reduced. Each instrument is butting into the music of the other but the musical accompaniment itself survives, representing the water everywhere no matter what else happens.
Somehow we just don’t know what is going to happen as each instrument juts in at odd times often playing the repeated two note theme, one instrument echoing another. (Just listen to the instrumental break halfway through.)
Plus one has to remember the lyrics. Maybe some of the students of literature who study Dylan’s words have made sense out of verses like…
Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she fliesI'm preachin' the word of God I'm puttin' out your eyes I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said, "Take it off the shelf As great as you are a man, You'll never be greater than yourself" I told her I didn't really care High water everywhere
… but I haven’t – not in the slightest. Yet hearing this version of the song it didn’t matter – they became just lines of chaos, jutting out on occasion from the destruction and havoc caused by the flood.
The song ends
I just can't be happy, loveUnless you're happy too It's bad out there High water everywhere
and with this performance, I don’t care that this doesn’t make any sense, for flooding doesn’t make any sense. In fact in its nonsense it does makes sense, except that this very statement makes no sense. And yet that seems right as we head to the end.
Generally speaking I’m not one for chaos, but I love this arrangement.
The Absolute Highlights series
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation
- 8: Girl from the North Country.