I’ve seen a few shows of varying quality during the pandemic restrictions of the past year. But none comes close to Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom gig. Granted, it wasn’t a live gig, although you kinda got that impression from the advance publicity.
But the quality of this pre-recorded show, the surprising setting, and Dylan’s performance was such that any initial gripes were quickly forgotten. Shot in black and white, mimicking a smoky down-at-heels club in the 1940s, Dylan was in full cabaret singer mode, all gestures and stances, singing positively tunefully.
Where was the raspy, near-croak we’ve become use to in recent years? Gone completely as he treated us to a romp through his early back catalogue – mainly 1960s and 70s with What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy the most recent one covered.
When you go to a Dylan gig, you expect the songs you know and love to be completed re-reworked, sometimes so you can barely recognise them. Here with the backing of a young band playing largely acoustically – double bass, acoustic guitars, mandolin, accordion, occasional electric guitar and no percussion – the songs sounded fresh, instantly recognizable and utterly captivating. Especially with the man in such good voice, at times strumming a couple of arch-top acoustic guitars and blowing a tasteful harmonica.
The dim lighting and the black and white shooting lent a considerable amount of atmosphere to the show, with patrons sitting around tables being served drinks and – à la 1940s, smoking. No wonder the band had their masks on – presumably to shield from the cigarette smoke rather than the virus. Though, actually, I kinda suspect the cigarette smoke might have been faked.
It worked rather well, though. The only thing else needed, said one wag on the online comments, was a “bar room brawl off stage.”
Dylan at 80 still managed to look rather cool, with his white jacket or – my favourite and I want one – his black embroidered one. The man still has a decent head of hair, though the low light suitably concealed his creased, craggy features.
He kicked things off with When I Paint My Masterpiece, probably the best version of this song he’s done, followed by Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, before the exquisite Queen Jane, with Dylan standing at the mike, articulating the lyrics almost sweetly and the band paring things back to put the spotlight on the song and the singer.
I’ll Be Your Only Baby Tonight, musically was very cool, but I have to say, I felt rather uncomfortable about Dylan being flanked by two young women as he sang. Didn’t seem a good look. My feminist daughter, however, reckoned that the scene was supposed to subvert “the male gaze” (Google it!) – the women actors looked right into the camera all the time and not at Dylan. If so, it was clever work by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el, who did a superb job overall. Watch this song yourself for yourself and decide.
A few songs later we got What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy, a quite beautiful acoustic version, with a little plaintive harmonica from Dylan, which brought out the yearning and pathos of the song. And that’s the thing about these arrangements – it helped you appreciate just how strong Dylan’s songs are, both lyrically and musically. In some concerts I’ve gone to in recent years, the songs were all but obscured by the rockabilly or rock’n’roll treatment.
He followed that with a tenderly sung Forever Young. I’ve always loved this song, but tonight, it seemed particularly poignant. That’s what we want for Dylan, for his songs, the albums, are so much a part of our history and we can’t bear to think of him aging. Because that means we’re aging too. And although we want it to be true, that he and we could stay forever young, we know, at 80, we’ll not have him performing and writing songs for much longer.
It was nice to get a song from John Wesley Harding in the mix, the lyrically opaque Wicked Messenger, whose title is based loosely on a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs. The obscurity of the lyrics was nicely emphasized by Dylan either being hidden entirely by the guitar player or almost completely in shade.
The final song, I hope we can’t read too much into – It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, sung with some deliberation, the band following Dylan’s careful enunciation, and highlighting the lyrics much more than the jaunty version on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home.
Suddenly it really was all over, just 48 minutes. But 48 utterly absorbing and totally entertaining minutes. The good thing is, having paid my $25, I can watch it again a time or two over the next couple of days.
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