The Never Ending Tour Extended: High Water

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

The Never Ending Tour Extended: This series uses recordings selected by Mike Johnson in his inestimable masterpiece The Never Ending Tour, and looks at how those performances change as time goes by.   The selection of songs from the series, and the commentary, are by Tony Attwood.


As you will know if you have been paying attention, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is the subject of Jochen’s latest book and I believe, is the most comprehensive analysis series ever on Untold Dylan.  We’ve just published episode 20, Odds and Ends, and my copy of the book of the series arrived yesterday (brilliant cover by the way Jochen).   So it’s a good time to see what Dylan has done with the song on stage.

Between October 2001 and October 2018 Bob played the song an amazing 712 times, and then decided to let it go.

Here is the 2001 edition taken from Power, Wealth, Knowledge and Salvation


I absolutely love this.  It has captured that fantastic combination of energy and reflection both in Bob’s vocals and in the backing by the band – and all achieved without any chord changes (which are normally an absolute fundamental of rock, R&B, the blues…)

A lot of this success comes from the terrific percussion which drives the whole piece along without ever intruding, while the multilayer accompaniment weaves inside, outside and around itself.   Just listen to the instrumental break, and then the contrast between that and the next couple of sung verses.

The temptation for the instrumental lines to fight each other or overtake the lyrics is never given into (Bob of course knows exactly how to keep a band under control), and the second instrumental break not only keeps the band where it should be, but actually offers a fade out and slow down.  Remarkable, brilliant, wonderful, and so worth preserving.

In fact what we have here is Bob Dylan doing counterpoint, and perhaps I should explain.  Counterpoint in music means that the harmonies are kept (which is easy because the song is based on only one chord) but the individual instruments have a clear level of independence and individuality as the musicians express themselves.   Who else has done this in rock music?

In 2002 (Accidentally Friends and Other Strangers) the sound has changed a little and Bob has modified his delivery too, plus we get a slight change of instrumental prominence, and together this gives a greater power of delivery, without the essence of the song ever being lost.

What I get here is a feeling that by now the guys have played the song multiple times but are still finding little nuances to slip in.   If you can pick it out as the song moves along, do listen to the “Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew” verse – it is slightly changed – but only slightly – and that adds that extra nuance which turns this from being very good into stunning.

More than anything I get the feeling that this is a favourite song being caressed and nurtured.  As ever with Bob there aren’t any vibrant showing-off solos but an entwining of the musical threads.

Just listen to the solo around the five minute mark and onwards; these are expert musicians carefully nurturing a friend.



So let us jump forward and what we find by 2005 (Choice cuts from London and Dublin) is a change to the accompaniment at the start.  It gives a different bounce to the song.  Not a huge contrast as the piece moves on, but enough to change the emphasis.   And what we find is that slowly, very slowly, the song is losing a little bit of its “difference” but so different was the song at the beginning of its life, that much of the unique quality is not lost.  Indeed the instrumental breaks show this.   Try the instrumental approach from 2’15” onward.  It’s Dylan but not as we know him.   Then as we get to around 3 minutes there’s a piano in there too – is that Bob playing?

And then again at 3’50” I guess that is a banjo part, but once again when the vocals return it is all stripped back and we find ourselves ready to start over.

What I do hope you can do is have the time to play the whole recording below, and focus as much on the instrumentation in the breaks as on Dylan’s own performance.  To me, the band really found something within this song that gave it an extra life and vitality.   If you have six and a half minutes to spare please do take it all the way through.  I can’t say this was a life-changing moment for me (that would be going far too far) but my goodness, it changed my vision of music for many a month after I first heard it.


Other articles in this series…

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