For those who consider themselves connoisseurs of the fluctuations in Bob Dylan’s voice, there was no doubt about it: he hasn’t sounded better in decades than he does in his new streaming special, “Shadow Kingdom,” which premiered on Veeps.com Sunday. That he had a beautiful tone to his melodious declarations, even enunciating to a shockingly clear degree, surely has something to do with a pandemic-mandated year-plus break in his usual relentless touring routine. But of course, as true fans know, Dylan’s voice has been making a bravura comeback for a good many years and several albums now, which many attribute to his supposedly having given up cigarettes.
Which is part of what made “Shadow Kingdom” so ironic. The 50-minute performance special was set in a fictional, stylized nightclub, possibly in the 1940s or ’50s or just a timeless twilight zone, where every single person in the tiny audience, man and woman alike, was smoking like a chimney, to a degree that seemed less like period specificity and almost like comedy. That collective scream you heard Sunday was from the American Lung Association as its board imagined a nation of Dylan acolytes who’d found a way to quit taking up cancer sticks en masse. Of course, these extras almost certainly weren’t smoking real cigarettes when they reportedly filmed the special in May. If they were, we’d already have heard about it on the news, with hospital ERs being overrun not with COVID victims but an entire crew’s worth of instant emphysema patients.
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One thing that did not go up in smoke was the hopes of Dylan fans, who’d had faith that this special would be something special, but did not really know much about what they were signing up for when they paid their $25. (Tickets remain on sale to view the show until 8 p.m. PT Tuesday, at which point it will apparently return to vapor.) What they got, most would agree, was better — if shorter — than they imagined. The only real clues about the special’s content had been its unrevealing title, a somewhat more informational “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan” subtitle, and eventually a black-and-white preview clip that showed Dylan, a masked band, and a comely, unmasked woman turning the rear of the tiny stage into her own smoking lounge, while the musicians played “Watching the River Flow,” a somewhat obscure one-off single from 1971. It was a case of minimal-but-true advertising: The setlist did lean almost entirely toward ’60s and early ’70s songs, and to ones that are not necessarily always in the forefront of that classic canon — in new arrangements so good that pretty much everybody who was watching Sunday was clamoring for a soundtrack to the event, preferably on LP.
The wrinkle was that all of these vintage songs looked and sounded like they were being performed by a drummer-less Americana band in a roadhouse. The next question is, which roadhouse. Maybe the bar pictured in the period cover photo of Dylan’s 2020 album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” sans jukebox? Certainly even the songs from his rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll albums of the mid-’60s felt like they’d been rethought so that they could fit in with the sound of his most recent release — mostly acoustic, but rambunctious, and hardly folky. Or maybe it would be the “Twin Peaks” roadhouse, given the surreality of the thing, which led “Lynch-esque” to show up in the comments section a lot. It wasn’t hard to imagine that maybe this was even the bar where the characters in the 1945 New Mexico B&W episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return” went to hang out between alien visitations and nuclear blasts. The blinds over the window in Dylan’s juke joint of the mind were slightly busted, the clock on the wall always stayed firmly at 10:12, and there was a bit of tinsel and holly scattered about, as if it had been Christmas at some point in the last ten years. Reportedly, the real location was somewhere in Santa Monica, but the end credits helpfully hinted that the location shoot had really been at the Bon Bon Club in Marseille. (There’s no such place, naturally.)
Helming all this was Israeli-American director Alma Har’el, whose fictional feature debut was “Honey Boy” in 2019, following a series of documentaries. Her style here could be considered documentary-noir. It sounds less appealing on paper than it was, but every one of the 13 song performances consisted mostly of a static shot set up somewhere within the faux bar, with typically just a couple of fleeting cutaways to a secondary camera trained on the secondary musicians. Usually we’d be perched behind the Black woman in the front row, who might get up to go get a beer, or to indulge in a slow dance with another patron. On one occasion, breaking the fourth wall, she and another bar-goer flanked Dylan on either side, facing the camera (pictured above), as if about to break into a background vocal that never came. The wall AC unit made cameo appearances. Applause from the audience was visualized once, but heard, never. For one number, a guitar popped up right in front of the camera for all the six-string riffs between verses, only to pop right back out when Dylan sang again. You get the monochromatic picture.
On three occasions Dylan and four players broke away from the bar setting — but had the same checkerboard floor pattern beneath them — to perform in a left-to-right lineup format. It was in these numbers that it became clearer something was amiss: Dylan’s singing and harmonica playing appeared to be captured live on film throughout the special, but everyone else seemed to be miming, to pre-recorded tracks… or else they replaced their instrumentals later in the studio. In most cases, what the two guitarists’ hands were doing bore little resemblance to any parts we were hearing on audio, almost as if intended for deliberately comic, taking-the-piss-out-of-“Top-of-the-Pops” effect. You could be distracted by this, and some were, having expected a fully live (or at least previously recorded, live-on-camera) show. It was easier to just go with it, as maybe the price to be paid for getting fresh recordings of these songs that sounded so stellar in tandem with arresting visuals, and/or just as an addition to the surrealism. If Dylan’s parts had been mimed, too, that would have been more disconcerting; maybe they were (he spends a lot of time in the shadow, too), but if so, he might’ve spent the entire pandemic taking lip-synch and harmonica-synch lessons denied to his backup musicians.
Those masked men (and one masked woman) were revealed in the end credits to be Alex Burke, Janie Cowan, Shahzad Ismaily, Buck Meek and Josh Crumbly — who are real musicians, but may or may not have been the ones coming up with the music in the studio. Some reports indicate the players heard on the audio aren’t those pictured on screen, but it’s not Dylan’s longtime live band, either. For now we’ll have to let the mystery be — and think of this as an extended music video, not a concert. Whoever was doing the playing, it was terrific. No drummer might sound like a bummer, but it didn’t stop “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from rocking out probably harder than it’s ever rocked out. “Forever Young,” which has tended to be more of a casual-fan favorite than real-fan favorite in the Dylan catalog, might have been bumped up into top-tier status among the cognoscenti just from this performance. Favorites like these are partly down to Dylan’s commitment to delivery, of course, and partly to how well the band transformed them into something out of a slightly different new-old genre. When a vocal-free version of what appeared to be “All Along the Watchtower” came up over the end credits, I didn’t just want the soundtrack to the show, I had a sudden hankering for an all-instrumental collection of Dylan classics, too.
There was a lot to chew on just from what Dylan gave us, anyhow. Like, some fresh lyrics right from the start, in the opening “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” That hardly prepared anyone for a “Watching the River Flow” with a few lyric changes and then a “To Be Alone With You” with words almost completely rewritten from its 1969 “Nashville Skyline” incarnation. That and “Tombstone Blues” are songs Dylan hasn’t performed on tour since the mid-2000s. Some of the tunes had been MIA from his setlists for longer than that, with “Pledging My Time” being sung for the first time since 1999 and a slow, searing “What Was It You Wanted” for the first since ’95.
“What Was It You Wanted” was an outlier here; it derives from 1989’s “Oh Mercy,” which some people still think of as a late-period album, and certainly not an “early” work. But, as some pointed out, “Time Out of Mind,” which some fretted sounded like a farewell album at the time, now is officially part of the first half of Dylan’s career. One this is for sure: everyone who took note of the show’s subtitle is hoping it portends for a corresponding “The Later Songs of Bob Dylan” followup special (and soundtrack album).
“My mortal bliss is to be alone with you,” Dylan sang in one of the alternate lyrics of “To Be Alone With You.” It’s presumptuous to imagine he might have been saluting the audience as part of that change, but the benefit of the streaming experience was to imagine that, in the comfort of our living rooms, we were alone with Dylan — and the musicians and extras who were the figments of his or our imagination. Happy 80th birthday, to us.
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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
The Wicked Messenger
Watching the River Flow
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
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