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

Bob Dylan famously does not do fan service. As a folkie, he went electric. As a mainstream artist, he had a Jesus phase. The Christmas albums: Not for everyone.

And in his live act, Dylan is also not a crowd-pleaser, at least in the conventional sense. He has played more than 2,500 concerts since beginning his so-called Never Ending Tour nearly 40 years ago, according to Bloomberg, and often performs his songs with new arrangements. In recent decades, though, Dylan, 82, has largely sat at the piano stone-faced and offered no more than a few words of banter to the crowd. As he once sang, “The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen.”

Which is why Dylanologists have been so surprised and charmed by a feature of his current Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, which is named for his 2020 album: geographically appropriate covers.

It started on Oct. 1, when Dylan, playing Kansas City, Mo., for his first American date in more than a year, opened with “Kansas City,” the Leiber and Stoller standard first made famous by Wilbert Harrison and then the Beatles. A few days later, Dylan opened his St. Louis show with “Johnny B. Goode,” in presumed tribute to the city’s native son Chuck Berry. Next up was Chicago, where Dylan opened with … “Born in Chicago.”

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:

  • On Oct. 1 in Kansas City, Dylan opened with “Kansas City.”

  • On Oct. 4 in St. Louis, Dylan opened with “Johnny B. Goode” and closed with Berry’s “Nadine.”

  • On Oct. 6 and 7 in Chicago, Dylan opened with “Born in Chicago,” a song popularized by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band — parts of which backed Dylan during his famous electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. On both nights he also closed with songs associated with Chicago blues acts: Muddy Waters’s “Forty Days and Forty Nights” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.”

  • On Oct. 16 and 17 in Indianapolis, Dylan played “Longest Days,” by Indiana’s own John Mellencamp.

  • On Oct. 20 in Cincinnati and Oct. 21 in Akron, Ohio, Dylan played “South of Cincinnati,” by Kentucky’s Dwight Yoakam.

  • On Oct. 29 in Montreal, Dylan played Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

  • And on Nov. 16, at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater — just a couple blocks from Riverside — Dylan teased the first verses of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”

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.”

Maybe the strikingly conventional move — “‘Kansas City’ — I’m sure everyone in Kansas City is sick of hearing it,” Padgett said — is the latest costume the shape-shifting Dylan is trying on. Maybe he just likes those songs, and maybe he wants to honor old friends.

Or maybe it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why.

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