BOB DYLAN – ” Shadow Kingdom “

Posted: December 23, 2021 in MUSIC
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What is the Shadow Kingdom and how do you gain access to it? In Bob Dylan’s case, it may be found in the film noir classics of his birth like the 1941’s The Maltese Falcon onward – and it’s those noir settings, artfully condensed and reduced to a signature sauce, that dictate the tone of the dim-lit tableaux that decorate the settings for Dylan’s first foray into online streaming.

It’s something of an event, given the cessation of the Never Ending Tour as a result of pandemic – he last played here in August 2019, that now-bucolic, innocent summer before Covid, and his last stage performance anywhere to date was in December of that year at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

Early in 2020, he recorded the landmark “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, and in some ways, if not the rough and rowdy ones, this streamed Shadow Kingdom performance is its kissin’ cousin. Not that anything from that album was played. But in its mix of the staged and performed, and with a strong emphasis on a more delicate vocal style, freed of the arena-standard drumkit-driven dynamics of past decades, it drew deeply on the ethereal intensity and ambience that was all across Rough & Rowdy Ways.

The 50-minute “broadcast event,” as the singer’s team billed it, was more a carefully directed art film than a live gig with a camera replacing an audience. Shot in lush black and white, with multiple setups and costume changes, the show had Dylan performing 13 songs in a ramshackle roadhouse-like setting — checkerboard floor, busted Venetian blinds, a wall-unit A/C blowing reflective streamers — while backed by a small, drumless band of face-masked musicians on various stringed instruments.

Were those players — among them Buck Meek of Big Thief and the well-travelled sideman Shahzad Ismaily — actually playing as we watched? In keeping with Dylan’s longstanding trickster’s reputation, it wasn’t clear: Often their hands appeared out of sync with the music, as though they were miming to pre-recorded tracks. The same may have been true of the singer himself, whose mouth was usually obscured behind an old-fashioned crooner’s microphone. For several songs, the roadhouse filled up with a crowd of smokers and drinkers, and when they applauded you couldn’t hear them, which made you wonder if that microphone was even on.

But such concerns seem beside the point of the very “Twin Peaks”-ish “Shadow Kingdom,” which played to the strengths of its streaming-video format to create an eerie cinematic vibe instead of seeking to duplicate the feeling of being at a concert. (On Instagram, Meek wrote that he’d “made a movie with Bob Dylan.”).

As promised by an introductory title card, the set list drew on Dylan’s early material — tunes from the 1960s and ’70s such as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Watching the River Flow” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” — though he also sang “What Was It You Wanted,” from 1989’s “Oh Mercy” album. He didn’t do anything from his most recent LP, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which earned rave reviews when it came out in June 2020.

Even so, the old songs’ vivid new arrangements, long on mandolin and accordion and bowed acoustic bass, felt of a piece with “Rough and Rowdy’s” pulpy cabaret-noir sound. And Dylan’s cracked, gulpy singing voice was as crisp (and evidently well-rested) as it’s been in years — ideal for those Bobologists eager to catalogue lyrical tweaks like the ones he made in “To Be Alone with You” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

For “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” which rode a rollicking folk-blues groove, Dylan stared down the camera with crinkly-eyed mischief as a pair of women stood silently on either side of him; “The Wicked Messenger” had trick closeups of an electric guitar that kept reminding you that the whole production had been choreographed in advance. (“Shadow Kingdom” was directed by Alma Har’el, who helmed 2019’s Shia LaBeouf-starring “Honey Boy.”)

Yet the most affecting moment may have been a relatively unadorned “Forever Young,” which Dylan sang with pleading tenderness, the band’s accompaniment gently cradling his words about growing up to be righteous and growing up to be true.

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