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Bob Dylan: Shadow Kingdom – review

Shadow Kingdom shows yet another side of Bob Dylan with "his voice is as good as it’s been this century"
Out of the shadows – we review Bob Dylan's first 'live' show since December 2019. Image

It took a global pandemic to end the Never Ending Tour.

On 7 June 1988, Bob Dylan and his band played a pavilion in Concord, California. This became the unofficial start of the unofficially titled Never Ending Tour.

Dozens of shows took place in dozens of countries each year, every year. The final one – though nobody knew it at the time – was 8 December 2019 at The Anthem in Washington DC.

From Subterranean Homesick Blues, which opened at Concord, to It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, which closed the Washington set, Bob Dylan had played 3,066 concerts.

Bob Dylan posters
Bob Dylan live
Seeing Dylan live is a unique experience no matter how often you do it

In these very a-changed times, artists have had to innovate and it should be no surprise that Dylan is at the forefront, live streaming a virtual concert called Shadow Kingdom via the digital platform Veeps.

So what do you get for your $25 ticket? Does Shadow Kingdom live up to its promise to “showcase Bob Dylan in an intimate setting”? Did he play that song I really want him to play?

Firstly, the highlight of seeing Bob Dylan can be the surprises he delivers. So if you know nothing about Shadow Kingdom except that you plan to watch it, you may want to stop reading…

Half an hour before the show starts, a chat box alongside the stream becomes active. Fans from all over the world – Quito, New Zealand, Winnipeg, seemingly every country in Europe and ever US state represented – are coming together, sharing their excitement. Some type unlikely requests.

Requests are especially unlikely given the Shadow Kingdom recording took place (probably) in May, the month Bob Dylan celebrated his 80th birthday. (Here at The Big Issue we celebrated too, with a top 80 playlist of his greatest hits – but ones typically left off ‘greatest hits’ collections.)

Then, just as you begin to imagine the incense wafting, the show starts…

Standing in a smoky saloon in moody black and white, Dylan strumming a guitar unveils a jaunty When I Paint My Masterpiece.

His crooning is clear, there’s subtle, delicious lyric variations.

Behind him is a four-piece band. They are masked and also relatively anonymous. The first surprise of the evening is that Dylan stalwarts, drummer George Receli and bassist Tony Garnier, are absent.

The setting is more distracting. Shot over the head of punters pulling on cigarettes and gamely bobbing their heads along, it may be the kind of room Dylan would rather play than the soulless arenas he tours around. But while it’s intimate, it’s also distancing.

Most Likely You Go Your Way next. And yes, most likely this concert was going confound and delight in equal measure! It’s a bluesy version, Dylan gesturing with one hand, gripping the mic stand with the other.

Then we move to another setting with a chessboard-tiled floor for a delicate Queen Jane Approximately. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight follows, the soft country lullaby now a rockabilly stomper.

Highway 61 Revisited continues to be revisited with the next couple of tracks, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and Tombstone Blues, which Dylan slows, singing a song that was originally designed to be spat out.

By now it’s harder to work out how live the live stream is. Besides being pre-recorded, the performances themselves also seem too good to be true.

In a way that’s great, Dylan’s voice is as good as it’s been this century. But never much of a mimer, his face usually remains obscured behind a microphone or in shadow. The musicians [Alex Burke, Shahzad Ismaily, Janie Cowen, Buck Meek and Joshua Crumbly] too look like they have a harder time pretending to play instruments than they would actually playing.

What Was it You Wanted, the most recent song performed, is sinister and brilliantly devilish. Forever Young, a song transformed so many times in different versions is born anew, with the sincerity of age and experience.

In the songs that follow, there’s no misery. The last couple of years haven’t resulted in a downbeat Dylan. But there’s also no Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Instead there’s reliable classics, none of his most famous songs. To Be Alone With You, Pledging My Time, Wicked Messenger, Watching The River Flow.

Then It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. And with that, after 50 minutes, it’s all over.

Bob Dylan Shadow Kingdom
In the spotlight so clear: Bob Dylan in his Shadow Kingdom smoky saloon. Image:

To have felt the anticipation that you get just before a concert even when stuck at home was worth the entry fee. The songs were spectacular, restored and revitalised with the Dylan on display was at the top of his game. There’s so little high-quality performance footage of from the last few decades. Shadow Kingdom then is an invaluable record of Dylan being as vital an artist now as he has ever been.

But his songs stand on their own. Strip them back and they become stronger. The try-too-hard-staging, with dressing-up-box cowboys and canoodling couples, was unnecessary.

Ironically for the first ‘live’ show I’ve seen in what seems like forever, I’d have preferred just to have listened to it without the visuals.

UPDATE: Veeps have just posted this announcement…

Due to popular demand Shadow Kingdom will now remain available for viewing until Sunday, July 25th. Tickets will continue to be on sale at until 8 pm PT that evening, allowing fans who missed the original airing of Shadow Kingdom to see the show at their leisure. Fans who previously purchased a ticket will enjoy an extended re-watch period as well, by accessing their existing ticket. All fans who purchase a ticket will be able to view Shadow Kingdom until 11:59 PM PT on Sunday, July 25th.