Shadow Kingdom: Bob Dylan
Live Stream Event – July 2021
From the opener When I Paint My Masterpiece to closer Baby Blue Bob Dylan gives us a mesmerising fifty-minute glimpse into his Shadow Kingdom, over which he presides, elusive as ever, wearing the masks of jester, crooner, mage and poet simultaneously; only occasionally allowing us to see his true, astonishing face in close up.
Bob Dylan at eighty is the artist of our age, Nobel Laureate and weaver of worlds. In Shadow Kingdom across thirteen songs, he creates a mood and atmosphere that linger long after the show ends.
Shadow Kingdom is subtitled The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. The set list is drawn mainly from the period 1965 – 1967 with a couple of early 70s inclusions. The stand-out song in terms of period is the 1989 What Was It You Wanted? from Oh Mercy; arguably Dylan’s finest 80s album. It sticks out in a set that otherwise represents that late 60s purple period when Dylan was producing brilliant album after brilliant album. Perhaps Dylan is asking us to reflect on what is wanted from him, both now and back in the later 60s when he hit his stride with the tour de force that begins with the snarls and growls of Bringing It all Back Home and ends with the thin wild mercury of Blonde on Blonde.
Shadow Kingdom is filmed in soft monochrome tones, directed by Alma Har’el and shot in Santa Monica over seven days. It perhaps defies any expectations that the audience might have had before seeing it. What was it we wanted; a concert movie? A live set? Whatever it was we wanted, what we got was a beautiful surprise. The band is stripped back, the black and white sets are curious and mercurial Dylan is diction-perfect.
There is a distinct Lynchian vibe in the settings; this band would not have been out of place at The Roadhouse in Twin Peaks. The interplay of shadow and light, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke are tropes that are familiar to those who know the Lynchverse. But with Lynch, it is always the darkness that dominates. In Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom, the light is equally important. There are even visual jokes. Two hard staring tough mamas flank Dylan as he croons I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight; one even flicks lint from the shoulder of his jacket. During The Wicked Messenger, the lead guitar player is wheeled into shot three times to play the riff. There is humour at work. There is also compassion. Queen Jane is no longer approximately, and the song is more reconciliatory than accusatory. Forever Young drips with love – imagine having that written for you as a kid? Tom Thumb does not sound as pissed off as he was in 1966; perhaps he and Juarez have come to terms with each other after all this time. To Be Alone With You gets a re-write, reminding us that the bard can do as he likes with his own words; he doesn’t have to please anybody but himself.
The bar setting for half of the set features a cast of characters from another time; the late 40s, early 50s. They seem to be an ensemble of outsiders, cast in a dignified light, noble, enigmatic and strange. A louche, drunk girl lounges against the back of the stage. Unlikely couples dance together, reminding us of a time when dancing with strangers was not a danger to health. Dylan delivers his poetry and music with intensity and gesticulation that add to the gravitas of his performance to a largely indifferent audience. Even stranger than a broken down roadside bar, semi–derelict with a cast of characters looking for a novel, is the room with the black and white chequered floor, where light and shadow create a dream-like space and where without the audience, all eyes are on Dylan and his musicians.
Dylan holds the space across liminalities. The setting, the audience are out of time. The past and present collide through the poetry and the music, through Dylan’s presence, his voice, which is rough and rich. His band play behind face masks; the clear and present danger of our times reflected in their inscrutable, hidden faces. They play stripped back Americana, without drums. They are consummate players providing acres of space for Dylan’s words to cast their spells.
The audience is without masks They smoke endless cigarettes, are proximate to each other. Over this out of time kingdom of shadows and light, Dylan presides; his words the laws of the place, his face, grave and wise, etched with the lines of a life richly lived.
Dylan has given us other rich gifts during the period of the pandemic. His seventeen-minute opus Murder Most Foul was released on March 27, 2020 as a single. It is a moving and troubling work that examines the murder of John F Kennedy through an inquiry into the impact of traumatic events on the culture. It was followed by the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways on June 19th 2020, Dylan’s 39th studio album. The album is undoubtedly one of his finest.
Hopefully Shadow Kingdom is a beginning and not an end and Dylan might treat us to his later songs or a filmic setting of Rough and Rowdy Ways. However, it’s best not to live in hope; Dylan will do what he wants, as he should. That’s what makes him the artist he is
Set List Details:
1. When I Paint My Masterpiece: 1971 – Bob Dylan and the Band
2. Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine: 1966 – Blonde on Blonde
3. Queen Jane Approximately: 1966 – Highway 61
4. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight: 1967 – John Wesley Harding
5. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: 1966 – Highway 61
6. Tombstone Blues: 1966 – Highway 61
7. To Be Alone with You: 1969 – Nashville Skyline
8. What Was It You Wanted: 1989 – Oh Mercy
9. Forever Young: 1973 –Planet Waves
10. Pledging My Time: 1966 – Blonde on Blonde
11. The Wicked Messenger: 1967 – John Wesley Harding
12. Watching the River Flow: 1971 – Single with Leon Rusell
13. It’s All Over Now Baby Blue: 1965 – Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan – vocals, guitar, harmonica