Clearing the Smoke
at Dylan’s Streaming ‘Kingdom’

Out of all the musicians knocked off the road by the pandemic, it must have been a real strain on Bob Dylan. A guy who has essentially played one tour after another since 1988, totaling more than 3,000 shows, pausing only a few months during a health scare in 1997, he had seen nothing like this eradication of his touring schedule. 

He filled it initially with his remarkable “Murder Most Foul,” an unexpected, 16-minute rumination about the assassination of JFK that was also his first No. 1 single, 57 years into his recording career. Released March 20, 2020, soon after lockdowns began, it was an anchor for his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways, released in June 2020.

It took a while, though, for Dylan to catch up to fellow artists using the internet to stream concerts as a way to connect with fans and maybe make up for all that lost touring revenue. Dylan had gotten used to traveling the world and reworking his tunes while dressed in cowboy garb and maintaining his career-long mystery before devoted fans.

His streaming event Shadow Kingdom on Sunday allowed him belatedly to continue that interest. On stages he surrounds himself with old Hollywood klieg lights and smoke to create a kind of atmosphere. In his streaming concert, smoke almost takes over.

The idea is that he’s in an imaginary ’30s cafe — the nonexistent Bon Bon Cafe in Marseilles, France (given “special thanks” in the credits). But with the cowboy hats of the denizens, surrounded by columns of long neck beers and overflowing ashtrays, it’s more like a period cafe in Hollywood, where it was almost certainly created. A slightly different setting for some songs has him on a checkerboard linoleum, adding to the dreamlike Twin Peaks nightclub vibe.

Not a live event, the 50-minute, 12-song presentation is more like an extended black and white video. There are no songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways (whose cover suggested a similar fantasy juke joint), and nothing in fact from the past 30 years of the Dylan songbook.

At the outset,  the special is subtitled “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan” and it includes a number of not unfamiliar choices he had nonetheless been skipping in his concerts for a while.

Backed by a masked, entirely new, mostly acoustic, band of guitars, accordion, and standup bass (no drums and only later, electric guitars), there is also a mandolin in the opening “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a performance made notable because Dylan seems to be strumming his own guitar, an instrument that he had largely abandoned on stage for the past decade or so for no stated reason. It’s all part of the stagecraft, it turns out: You can’t hear what he’s playing and he stops altogether at one point to pop his lapels or make a point. He does play some harmonica here and there, however.

With her long blonde hair waving, standup bassist Janie Cowan makes her presence known in the band that also includes guitarist Buck Meek of Big Thief and Shahzad Ismally, who has in the past backed Elvis Costello, Will Oldham, and Laurie Anderson. Rounding out the tasteful, laid back band: Joshua Crumbly and Alex Burke. An ancient clavichord seems to be played during “Forever Young.”

Being off the road so long has lent a new clarity to Dylan’s voice; its cragginess is gone. The selections are generally slowed down; some, like “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” approach spoken word. There’s an amusing moment as he sings “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” lodged between two women, all coiffed, made-up and dressed up for the occasion (and one of them takes time to wipe dust from Dylan’s shoulder).

He sits to ask “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989’s Oh Mercy that is the most recent thing included, as if inquiring to those who ponied up the $25 and fees whether he was delivering. As if to get his smoking bar patrons to get up and dance, he delivers “Pledging My Time” as a blues and does “The Wicked Messenger” the way the Faces did it in 1970.

There’s a full blown dance party going on for his statement of purpose “Watching the River Flow,” and a woman stands among the band on stage, sneering, as if to illustrate it. He bids farewell in the concluding “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” misidentified in the overly large captions as just “Baby Blue.” Likewise, “Queen Jane Approximately” was titled merely “Queen Jane,” perhaps indicating all approximations are over and he’s fully landed it.

More likely, these songs will change more once Dylan gets back on the road. And is there any doubt that, at 80, he’ll be back out soon? (His last show before a paying audience, incidentally, was December, 2019 at the Anthem in Washington, DC).

When he does, Shadow Kingdom will stand not among the streaming performances scores of other musicians played during the pandemic, but as another engrossing incarnation of one of America’s most creative artists, taking its place alongside his 1994 MTV Unplugged, or 2019’s revisionist Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.  

People will seek out bootlegs or tapes of it in years to come, just to catch the unusual vibe of the event, but Dylan by then will have long moved on.

The setlist for Bob Dylan: Shadow Kingdom was:
“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”
“Tombstone Blues”
“To Be Alone with You”
“What Was it You Wanted?”
“Forever Young”
“Pledging My Time”
“The Wicked Messenger”
“Watching the River Flow”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

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