“Things are breaking up out there/high water everywhere,” Bob Dylan sang Wednesday night at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina shuttered the historic theater 10 years ago, and Dylan’s return to the city after nearly four years marked not just the continuing rebirth of this national landmark but his own reinvention as a vocalist who has discovered a way to make a legendary vocal rasp as effective as an opera singer’s aria.
Dylan performed a two-hour show steeped in nocturnal moods and gentle handling of his more recent songbook, not the catalog hits. Having recently released a set of standards, he cast himself as a vaudeville-era crooner not just by looking the part — a gambler’s suit with one hand dipped into a coat pocket, the other leaning a vintage microphone stand his way — but also in performance.
With the lighting design casting all the musicians partly in shadows, Dylan frequently stood in the center of the stage, legs apart and holding a harmonica that he lifted to his mouth for three-note solos as lonely as nighttime train whistles. His longtime touring band — now the longest that Dylan, 73, has worked with in his 53-year career — has mastered the art of keeping the music at a steady burn without overwhelming the vocals.
The effect kept Dylan’s voice in sharp focus; his diction twisted some lyrics, stretched others. On “Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” he practically yodeled single words, while on “Tangled Up in Blue,” slower than the original version, he pulled lines apart so that the song’s conversation between two lovers ended up a kind of suspenseful radio drama.
Later, during “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan recited a series of eccentric couplets (“I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/There are secrets in them I can’t disguise”) in a playful call-and-response with his band.
The music rolled slowly, unfolding at a luxurious pace. Many songs were bathed in the pedal steel guitar of Donnie Herron, who introduced moods before the band got going. On “Soon After Midnight,” guitarist Charlie Sexton took a rare solo, but, instead, he quoted the melody of another song — the Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon.”
The musicians were masters in nuanced colorings of songs. Drummer George Receli, a New Orleans native, used mallets and brushes throughout, picking up sticks just rarely for “Pay in Blood,” one of the few heavier songs of the night. On “Duquesne Whistle,” Sexton and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball soloed together in a high register, mimicking Dylan’s chugging piano down low.
For “Early Roman Kings,” Kimball replaced his guitar with a pair of shakers; the band vamped together in what was a slinky 12-bar blues.
Aside from “She Belongs to Me” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the majority of Wednesday’s set list avoided Dylan’s classic 1960s period and, instead, focused on more recent material. Unlike many of his peers, he can pull that off because his newer songs have great depth.
The two standards he performed — “Autumn Leaves” and “Stay With Me” — received his only standing ovations of the night. Dylan and his band played them late in the set, and they were cast in the same midnight backdrop. Dylan stood to play each one, gesturing as if to keep the audience members suspended on each word, which they were.
Dylan has a fruitful history with New Orleans: It was where he first recorded with producer Daniel Lanois (the 1989 “Oh Mercy” album), who later helped jump-start his career from the doldrums, a period he wrote lovingly about in his 2004 memoir.
He was blocks away from the Esplanade Avenue studio where that album was created, but he didn’t mention it. Instead, he was engaged in a new form of performance art that was about spectacle, but the low-key kind that made small gestures sound larger than life itself.