It Ain’t His, Babe: Bob Dylan Has Been Playing City-Specific Covers

Dylan, who last year published “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” a digest of some of his favorite tracks, has been known as a curator of the American songbook ever since he was doing folk standards in Greenwich Village 60 years ago.

But the winking nature of these performances has struck Dylan’s admirers as unusual.

“It’s crowd-pleasing in a way we don’t expect,” said Ray Padgett, the author of a newsletter about Dylan concerts and the book “Pledging My Time: Conversations With Bob Dylan Band Members.”

“It’s almost unprecedented,” Padgett added.

Almost, not completely. Padgett pointed to a 1986 show with Tom Petty in which Dylan also performed “Kansas City” in its namesake town, as well as a 1988 concert in Montreal that featured a cover of “Hallelujah,” the masterpiece from the native Leonard Cohen, one of Dylan’s favorites of his contemporaries.

It is difficult to find video footage of the latest performances, as the concerts have been “phone-free experiences,” with devices locked in pouches. But sound recordings have made it to YouTube. Have a listen:

Dylan has shows scheduled in Baltimore (perhaps he is an Animal Collective fan?); Richmond, Va.; Huntington, W.Va.; and a few other Eastern locales.

What explains the unexpected adds?

Dylan’s regular set list has been fixated on the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album, featuring every track other than “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute meditation on John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Given that presentist focus, maybe the covers, mostly of older songs by deceased musicians, are his way of placing, as he once put it, “yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room.”

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