Bob Dylan is most likely quietly celebrating his 70th birthday today — he has a string of June dates in Europe to make. He last appeared on a New Orleans stage in 2006, headlining the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It's a place he's loved, or still does love. It's Highway 61, after all, that led from Dylan's birthplace to New Orleans.
Then there's this passage from Chronicles, in which he introduces the reader to New Orleans, though his description winds up to something exciting, lets go, then grasps again at its possibilities. He implies the city's not something easily described, and that's OK with him. (The throwaway line, "Great place to be intimate or do nothing." may be the most accurate.) He said it's a place saturated with ghosts and melancholy, darkness and sometimes light. He noted the city's "rhythm" and "pulse," too, and set out to record here in 1989.
Here, Dylan recorded Oh Mercy (and tracks appearing on The Bootleg Series 1-3 and Tell Tale Signs, also a part of the Bootleg series) with producer Daniel Lanois, who at the time was working with the Neville Brothers (on 1989's Yellow Moon). Dylan (just a couple years into his quest, the Neverending Tour, which intends to do exactly that) and Lanois met for sessions on Emlah Court and in an empty, five-story apartment building on Soniat Street. Dylan used local musicians Mason Ruffner, Brian Stoltz, Tony Hall and Willie Green, as well as Cyril Neville and Rockin' Dopsie, on the recordings. The sessions didn't go too well — there were arguments, smashed guitars — but the album is one of Dylan's best "comeback" works.
In the Tell Tale Signs liner notes, Peter Stone Brown writes, "Oh Mercy wasn't New Orleans R&B, it was Bob Dylan music. The sound was dense with layers of guitars, the production steamy. The songs were deep, dark and mysterious, some funny and some with anger brewing beneath the surface. In other words, everything you want in a Bob Dylan album." Or, everything Dylan liked, or disliked, about New Orleans. And he's welcome back any time.