The dictum of the song-and-dance man is, “Always leave them wanting more.” But for Bob Dylan, who at 80 remains America’s paramount troubadour, the greater motto goes something like: “Give them what they didn’t know they wanted.”
On Sunday (July 18th), viewers around the globe tuned in at 5:00 p.m. EST for Shadow Kingdom, billed as Dylan’s “first broadcast performance in thirty years” and an “exclusive concert event.” Many of the fans, who paid $25 (or more on the secondary market) for access through Veeps, logged on expecting to watch a livestreamed show by Dylan and his band, perhaps shot in an empty studio — it’s what we’ve come to expect from 16 months of culture consumption in a pandemic.
Dylan devotees are used to catching him in concert every year, somewhere on his “Never Ending Tour” (78 gigs in 2019, 84 in 2018) — or at least to listen to the bootleg recordings online. But last year forced Dylan off the stage and road for perhaps the first extended pause since 1988. This broadcast might have let fans see and hear what they’d missed in 2020 — the challenging but dependable, in his way, Bard at work.
Dylan, as ever, had a different idea. With Shadow Kingdom, he did not document or recreate the experience of a Dylan show. Instead, he conjured a fantasy concert that can never be.
From the first frame, it’s clear that this production is more than aiming a camera at a stage. The viewer lands at the back of a tiny wood-paneled juke joint, dotted with café tables and a small crowd smoking and drinking from beer bottles and whiskey glasses. Filmed in black-and-white, the vibes are nostalgic noir, views obscured by lens flares, tinsel-lined beams, and cigarette haze. Dylan stands at center, sporting his customary western suit jacket and a curly gray mullet. He plays guitar, backed by a four-piece band: accordion, upright bass, guitar, mandolin.
Dylan sounds good, maybe the best he’s sounded this millennium. His voice is strong and clear, full-throated, as he gruffly croons (a slightly amended lyric), “Everything will be beautiful/ When I paint my masterpiece.” Opening with “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a 1971 song originally released by the Band, is a herald for the set that follows. It’s one of the set’s five songs that appeared on 1971’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, and it’s the opening number of Dylan’s 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, a clue to the cinematic quality of this showcase.
From there, the concert film unfolds over thirteen vignettes — sliding seamlessly between the ending of one song and the start of another with a momentary blur, the instruments unraveling in codas before kicking into the next groove. Each song arrives with a new angle on the set, a new position for the band, a new jacket for Dylan. (In the chat box running alongside the video, some viewers expressed alarm as they realized Dylan was not, at that moment, performing in a moody 1940s honky-tonk. “No one can change clothes that fast!” one declared.)
Each set-piece shifts in style, from a funky swaggering blues of “Most Likely You Go Your Way” into the gentle, elegant acoustic of “Queen Jane Approximately,” and later the surreal reinvention of “Tombstone Blues” as an anxious spoken-word piece. He still finds some new, true element at the core of the songs, including a significant re-write of the lyrics of “To Be Alone With You.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this performance is how intimately recognizable the songs are. Part of the contrarian fun of a typical Dylan set is divining what song the band is playing — due to obscured arrangements and revised or mumbled lyrics. But the title cards that introduced each song here prove unnecessary, since these arrangements and performances are as straightforward and emotive as on any of his records.
Without percussion, these arrangements keep Dylan’s vocal delivery at the forefront, and his voice is a revelation. A major highlight is “What Was It You Wanted” — the most recent song of the set, from 1989’s Oh Mercy — when Dylan perches on a stool and emphasizes each word, each restless question while fiddling with the harmonica in his hand. In the shifting chiaroscuro, and sung by an octogenarian, the song is simultaneously a plea, an accusation, and a long dark reflection. Then in the next movement, Dylan stands under a spotlight apart from his band to sing “Forever Young” — aged with sweetness into a hard-won lullaby.
Most of us have given up hearing live renditions of beloved songs that recall what we first heard on record. We appreciate Dylan’s constant reinvention, his allegiance to his own wiles. Yet part of us, that early nostalgic part, longs to hear the songs as they first reached us. And here Dylan is, subverting expectations once again, and giving us the songs as familiars. The 50-minute set ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
A strange feature of the broadcast concert film is the live chat, where Dylanologists get to kvetch in real time. (Usually, we have to wait until the lights go up or hit the online forums for that.) From the start, the comments are peppered with complaints about the smoke (“He’s trying to sing!”), the young diverse actors dancing in their glamorous glad-rags (“Down in front!”), and that Dylan’s band members are wearing masks. The masks are the only contemporary element in the film — a reminder that Dylan shares the same world, same moment that we do, even as he digs into the themes and aesthetics that have long obsessed him.
There is also speculation that the pre-taped performance is not a live recording of the music — that Dylan is lipsyncing and the musicians are miming. Truly, the production quality is crystalline, and it’s a thrill to inhabit that space visually and audibly. If Dylan lipsynced during it all, I don’t care, and I can’t wait for the album release. The backing band isn’t made up of all Dylan’s usual players, but includes younger musicians like Janie Cowan on bass, and Big Thief’s Buck Meek, who provides memorable features on lead guitar. Director Alma Har’el is an Israeli-American music video director and filmmaker (Bombay Beach, Honey Boy) known for blurring the lines of documentary and fiction — an apt collaborator for Dylan.
In a 2020 interview with the New York Times, Dylan was asked about “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” he said, “I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable.”
After all, Shadow Kingdom is a film, a fantasy of a concert that Dylan would never be able to play in real life — not to those listeners, in that speakeasy, with that sound. It’s exciting that he set out to take advantage of the medium and make something fresh — out of his own early work and the pressures of today.
“That’s what the song tries to say,” Dylan went on. “Even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, obviously you have to paint another masterpiece.”
Editor’s Note: Shadow Kingdom is available to stream on Veeps through July 21st.
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
Queen Jane Approximately
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
To Be Alone with You
What Was It You Wanted
Pledging My Time
Watching the River Flow
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue