Shadow Kingdom: Bob Dylan In Performance, 18 July 2021

The streaming event announced to much fanfare as featuring Bob Dylan’s first public performance since Washington DC on 8 December 2019 turned out to be less a live concert as such than a 50-minute film, self-defined as an ‘exclusive broadcast event’, signed by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el and titled Shadow Kingdom – The Early Bob Dylan.  The show had an audio and a video component: the video has not been universally liked and we will not discuss it on this occasion, but for many, including this reviewer, the audio – for purposes of this review we will still call it ‘the concert’ – exceeded all expectations and marked a triumphant return to performance by the now octogenarian Bob Dylan, a feast after a year and a half’s fast.

The concert was made available for streaming, subject to purchase of a ticket priced at $25, at 2 pm Pacific Time on 18 July 2021, remaining accessible for viewing or re-viewing for the next 48 hours. Dylan’s performance consisted of 13 songs at a venue believed to be in Santa Monica, California, accompanied by a five-piece band and (for the video and as a symbolic audience) a select cohort of actors. The instrumentation included acoustic and electric guitar, bass, accordeon and mandolin: Dylan played guitar or harmonica on some of the songs (there was no piano). Musically the concert was excellent, occupying a terrain somewhere between the worlds of country and electric blues. Above all, Dylan’s singing was remarkably good. No blurred vocals this time round: ‘every word of those words rang true’, with the clearest of enunciation and the sense that Bob Dylan, no longer tired of his creations, was revelling in the power of his own wordcraft.

This review will look at the 13 songs played from the viewpoint of two different kinds of sequencing that both inevitably mark Dylan concerts – first, the order of the songs played as reflected in the setlist, and second, the historical chronology of the originals of those same songs.

The show opens with ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which will prove to be the only song repeated from Washington 2019: for the rest, the setlist will be totally refreshed. ‘Masterpiece’ is given a country-rock treatment and features some rewriting of the lyrics as compared to the original, the most arresting change being that the lions now have a ‘mean and hungry look’, which is interestingly close to Cassius’s ‘lean and hungry look’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Dylan’s clear enunciation already impresses.

Next up is ‘(Most Likely) You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’, in an arrangement with accordeon resulting in a countrification of the Blonde and Blonde original. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ follows, slower and more reflective than on Highway 61 Revisited. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is done fast and a shade raucously. The Highway 61 album is then again raided for ‘Tombstone Blues’ (Dylan sings five of the six stanzas, omitting only the fourth) and ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (done complete), in both of which he caresses the words almost conversationally.

‘To Be Alone With You’ has been almost completely rewritten, with little but tune and title phrase remaining from the Nashville Skyline original. The new lyrics appear as if from the mouth of a later-Dylan narrator from Time Out Of Mind or Modern Times: ‘Did I kill somebody? / Did I escape the law?’, ‘I’ll hound you in death / That’s what I’ll do’. This is virtually a completely new song that will require time to assimilate.

A complete contrast follows with ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, performed with a keen sensitivity (all seven verses complete) in a rendition close to the original with eloquent harmonica: this song, from 1989 and Oh Mercy, will prove to be the show’s most ‘recent’ number. Next comes a heartfelt ‘Forever Young’, followed by ‘Pledging My Time’ – perhaps not the profoundest song on Blonde and Blonde but certainly a surprise – whose classic blues sound, again, does not diverge far from the original.

The surprise factor continues with a moving rendition of ‘The Wicked Messenger’, probably this concert’s darkest song – and arguably its highlight. Against an arrangement denser than on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s vocal is word perfect, with a dramatic elongation of ‘burning’ at the end of stanza two.

Next comes a rollicking ‘Watching the River Flow’, with some lyric changes but an atmosphere close to the original. Then Dylan returns to slow mode with an eloquent rendering of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – a suitably valedictory song to close the show. There is no encore and, indeed, it’s all over.

There remains to be considered the second sequencing, namely the order of composition of the originals (all 13 are Dylan songs, no cover versions). The earliest song, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, dates from Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, the latest, ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, from 1989: confounding many fans’ expectations, there is nothing ‘new’, nothing from Rough and Rowdy Ways. At the other end, there is nothing from the first four albums, thus nothing from the ‘folk period’. Overwhelmingly, the songs chosen date from between 1965 and 1971: that is the case for eleven of them (if we include the rewritten ‘To Be Alone With You’, with only two hailing from later than 1971. In addition, Dylan has not on the whole chosen the most famous songs from the period preferred – there is no Like a Rolling Stone, no Mr Tambourine Man: this is a 60s Dylan mainly for connoisseurs.

The Dylan of this concert is essentially the ‘rock Dylan’ of the second half of the 1960s: this is confirmed by the director’s subtitle, ‘The Early Bob Dylan’. That period, though not the era of Dylan’s first fruits, is now sufficiently far away in time to be considered ‘early’. The ‘shadow kingdom’ of the title may, then, suggest a Bob Dylan revisiting the shadows of that faraway time when he was a rock idol and the hippest person on the planet – a confrontation with the past which he has, in this excellent performance, magisterially shared with his audience.

**

Setlist

When I Paint My Masterpiece (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)      

(Most Likely) You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

Queen Jane Approximately (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Tombstone Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline, 1969 – rewritten)

What Was It You Wanted? (Oh Mercy, 1989)

Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)

Pledging My Time (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

The Wicked Messenger (John Wesley Harding, 1968)

Watching the River Flow (More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, 1971)

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

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