Singing Takes Center Stage in Bob Dylan’s ‘Shadow Kingdom’
Bob Dylan (archive photo by Mary Andrews)
The minute Shadow Kingdom was announced, rumors and speculations began to ripple through the rarified air of Bob Dylan fandom. Would the $25 a ticket streamed special be a filmed version of a live performance, his first since 2019? Or would it be something else entirely? There were few clues and much conjecture. A short black-and-white teaser that came out a few weeks ago featured a snippet of “Watching the River Flow,” suggesting — unless it was a capture of rehearsals — that the performance had already been filmed and that Shadow Kingdom wouldn’t simply be a streamed concert.
Directed by the Israeli-American director Alma Har’el (of Honey Boy) and filmed in stunning black and white by Lol Crawley, Shadow Kingdom is an impressionistic, highly theatrical presentation of Dylan singing some of his earliest, rarely performed material. Those expecting the spontaneous, off-the-cuff attitude of his usual live show may have been disappointed by Shadow Kingdom’s choreographed performances, but the format had plenty to offer in lieu of spontaneity. Shadow Kingdom is a revelation that truly breathes new life and offers new insights into some very old songs.
Filmed in a variety of settings meant to replicate run-down theatres, juke joints, and saloons, Shadow Kingdom seems to take place in a parallel universe. The audience is scant and studiedly disinterested. As they disappear into and emerge from clouds of smoke, very few of the attractive spectators appear to watch the singer or listen to the music. Perhaps this is Dylan’s vision of purgatory — a place where he can give the performance of a lifetime and nobody notices.
None of Dylan’s regular band appears among the Shadow Kingdom musicians. The young players he’s assembled dress in black and wear masks that obscure their emotions and interactions. It’s an eerie effect that suggests ancient Greek tragedy, while at the same time anchoring viewers in time to 2021 and the global pandemic that’s made streamed performances like this more common.
Shadow Kingdom opens with an expansive, slowed-down version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” that sets the stage for the best singing anyone has heard Dylan offer in this century. Every song in the 45-minute performance is clearly communicated and beautifully phrased with not a syllable rising or falling before it should. Every word he sings stretches, compacts, and hangs perfectly in the balance. It’s the kind of vocal high-wire act that few would ever attempt, and at this late date, 60 years into his career, it’s astonishing to hear Dylan sing with such battered finesse. His voice remains a truly unique instrument in popular music.
Throughout Shadow Kingdom, Dylan opts for stripped down, minimalist arrangements that highlight his lyrics and vocal performance over instrumentation. Most of the set is comprised of mid-’60s, “thin white mercury” era songs like “Pledging My Time” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way.” A gorgeous version of “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” and an emotional reading of “Queen Jane Approximately” featuring a beautifully evocative harmonica solo are among the many highlights, while a stunning “Tombstone Blues” features the most impressive vocals of the night. “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989’s Oh Mercy, is the newest song performed in Shadow Kingdom. Lonely and resigned, it fits seamlessly into the overall presentation, underscoring the singularity of Bob Dylan’s artistic vision over the past six decades. Shadow Kingdom finishes with a stately and resigned reading of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that will be listened to and discussed long after the event is taken offline.
In Shadow Kingdom viewers experience a version of Bob Dylan that they have likely long dreamed of encountering. Subdued and badass at the same time, it’s been a long time since Dylan’s had anything to prove. The roaring and slurring River Styx bluesman voice that he’s relied on for years has faded into the background. Instead, we get a masterful singer intoning his music at twilight. If there are better versions of any of these songs, I’d sure like to hear them.
Shadow Kingdom is a masterwork of form and substance. It’s available to watch via Veeps through tomorrow. Don’t you dare miss it!
Shadow Kingdom is viewable via Veeps.com through 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on July 20.