On Serendipity. Bob Dylan in New Orleans, April 1, 2024

1978. My first full year at University, during which I spoke to Tennessee Williams, at the press conference for the an initially ill-fated play called Vieux Carre, at Nottingham Playhouse. I didn’t get to speak to Bob Dylan, who I’d loved since I was seven. But I did get to see him, not once but twice, on the opening night at Earls Court (having queued overnight for tickets) and the picnic at Blackbushe. I thought these might be my only chance to see Dylan, who toured so rarely, but there were at least thirteen more to come. I never thought I’d visit the setting for Williams’ play, but here I am in New Orleans, staying in Vieux Carre, and tomorrow I plan to visit the building that the play is set in or at least see if it still exists (see footnote).

What am I doing here? I was meant to be driving around Texas, after a visit to SXSW and a fellowship at UT, researching a novel. But I am recently widowed, and the thought of a long road trip without Sue, my partner of forty years, ceased to appeal. Also, I noticed how close New Orleans was on the map. For the cost of the hire car, I could fly here and back for six days and still make my return flight to the UK. 

Bob Dylan was, come Friday, playing two nights on the campus where I’d been working. Had I known well in advance, I might have delayed my flight, but I do have to be at work on Monday. And I had already seen this tour, seventeen months ago, albeit in an arena, but with seventh row seats. The Austin show was GA and would likely be rowdy. Fine. After all, the tour is named after the Rough and Rowdy Ways album.

I’d been sure that 2022 would be the last time I’d see Bob and, while it was a great show (critic Richard Williams, who has seen him countless times since ’65, and three times that week said it was the best show he’d seen Dylan play). I was a bit overwhelmed by the occasion and teared up during a magnificent ‘Every Grain of Sand’. The guys my age sitting next to my sister-in-law, Claire, pushed their way out, telling her ‘he never plays encores’ (true, but only if you count recent years) and would have just got out of the building when Bob returned to the stage, talked about Jerry Lee Lewis, who had died that day, and performed a magnificient ‘I Just Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye’. If this was my last Dylan show, it was a perfect one to end on. Transcendent, even. I was satisfied.

Then, yesterday afternoon in New Orleans, I took a wrong turn walking home from Louis Armstrong Park. Only, obviously, it was the right turn, because I saw this.

Five minutes later, I was in possession of an orchestra seat (stalls, to UK readers) row U, dead centre to see Bob Dylan play in the smallest of the three theatres I’ve had the privilege to see him perform in. And for only ten dollars more than I paid last time. There are very few advantages to being single (I’m getting used to the restaurant table near the toilets), but the ability to pick up leftover seats in theatres is one of them. Indeed, I could have been a lot closer to the stage but it would have been on the left and I don’t like looking at Bob’s back. Anyway, I’ve been lucky enough to be very close several times.

The Saenger Theater, nearly a century old, turns out to have a magnificent Italian Baroque interior. I wandered round for half an hour before taking my seat, dead centre of the orchestra section, next to two lovely people a decade or so older than me. The guy had just finished appearing as an extra in the Spinal Tap sequel, which he said was going to be a lot of fun. He’d seen (spoiler alert) Elton John do his cameo appearance.

The show began at eight sharp. The band played an extended intro, with the occasional very deliberate discord, much longer than they had in Nottingham, which meant that every single person was settled in their seat before Bob appeared five minutes later. My seat was directly in line with him.

The sound was stunningly good. In most of the shows I’ve seen Bob play this century, he’s changed the words around, seemingly improvising whole new verses to ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ for instance. Hardly at all tonight, except in the opening ‘Watching the River Flow’, where he seemed to sing fleeting impressions of the original song (the first Dylan single I bought, btw) and added a line about seeing a man who had no soul. This wasn’t the way I remembered him doing it in Nottingham. But then, nothing else was either. Here’s the thing: the setlist was exactly the same and in the same order, with one cover version switched and no encore. But every arrangement, bar one, was different.

How different? I wasn’t taking notes and I certainly wasn’t going to sneak a spare phone in (strict warnings that you would be ejected if caught filming or recording and all phones had to be put in one of those mylar bags – a move I fully approve of, for it avoids endless distractions), and I wasn’t in journalist mode, so didn’t take notes. But the overall effect was to keep the audience on their toes. In a couple of the older numbers, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ for instance, Bob did a long piano vamp in the middle. Then there was the one new arrangement I had heard online, the ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ version of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which went down a storm.

Here’s the other thing about the show, as the clip I just linked demonstrates: Bob is singing really, really well. Of course it helped that the sound was the best I’ve ever heard at a Dylan gig (I made a point of going up to tell the three man crew this afterwards), but you could see how much thought went into how he delivered every word, which – to put it mildly, thinking about all those ‘upsing’ years – hasn’t always been the case). Now, I’m not saying that every new arrangement is superior to the original. I would have liked to hear ‘Key West’ in the original arrangement just one time and I preferred the Nottingham version of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ which was much closer to the original. But I love that Bob keeps trying to improve on and experiment with his work and the format of the tour, sticking to the same setlist every night, clearly gives him the freedom to do this.

I said that one song was much as he played it last time (and, indeed, as it is on the Rough and Rowdy Ways album). It was the penultimate ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’. Before that, we got the one cover version of the show. In Nottingham in 2022 it was that old chestnut ‘That Old Black Magic’. I was expecting Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’, which he’d done for the last few nights. After all, it references both the Mississippi and New Orleans. But no, out came a violin and we got a fully fledged new arrangement, quite unlike the acoustic version he played many years ago, of ‘On the Banks of the Old Ponchartrain.’ It was lovely (audio linked, recorded by someone who did do a sneaky recording), and it went down a storm, as did the whole show. There was, of course, a full standing ovation at the end.

Was tonight my last Dylan gig? I can hardly improve on such serendipity. For this was the right place and the right time in my life to see another Dylan gig. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead. Only, there are already rumours this tour will return to the UK in the autumn. I count myself very lucky to have lived my life at a time when Bob Dylan is not only still producing great work but also relentlessly touring, keeping on keeping on, staring mortality in the face every night. It’s a lesson I intend to take into the next phase of my own life, as I prepare to quit academia and become a full time writer (and restless traveler) again.

 PS Yes, I made it to 722 Toulouse, where Tennessee Williams not only set the play, but once lived, although the plaque on the loving restored house (which is not open to the public) doesn’t mention Vieux Carre). Oh, and, appropriately enough, it was the only street In NOLA where I was actively solicited.

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