Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

Sunday, July 18th at 5:00 PM Bob Dylan performed for the world for the first time since December 8, 2019. While some were expecting a live concert what we got was a “performance” recorded some time in May. Shadow Kingdom was more like Shadow Pantomime – a long-form music video.

The good news is that the music was mostly glorious. There were a few songs that suffered from Bob’s habit of introducing stop time into songs that we are used to hearing without it but other than that the new arrangements were beautiful. I really enjoyed hearing Queen Jane Approximately, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Pledging My Time, The Wicked Messenger and Watching the River Flow reimagined.

And, as many have already mentioned, Dylan sounded fantastic. I am glad to hear that he has given up smoking and has had time to rest his voice. He has always had great phrasing and it was enjoyable to hear him employ that along with clarity and some blues inflection. His harmonica and guitar playing were also good. It would be a crime if this were not released as an album.

I don’t at all feel cheated by it not being a live performance. Some have complained about the price being charged by VEEP of $25.00 US. This is not a fair objection. Pre-pandemic live venue prices for mediocre local talent were around $35.00 – $40.00. Amazon Prime charges $19.99 for first run movies so $25.00 is not exorbitant for seeing a Nobel prize winning talent such as Bob Dylan in an exclusive context.

All considered, I am not a big fan of music videos. Each of us is capable of generating our own mental images while listening to music – or maybe not. Maybe music videos exist for those who lack imagination. Whichever is true, I wish Dylan had, with his band, been filmed in the studio or on a soundstage actually playing these songs. They could have played each song as many times as they liked until they got good takes. They could have even overdubbed any rough spots, it wouldn’t matter to me. I just enjoy seeing musicians do what they do best, play.

Instead, we were treated to something akin to American Bandstand directed by Fritz Lang. I don’t know if Dylan was lip synching or not, he was credible but often hiding behind the microphone, however the other musicians were clearly miming. It could have been like when the Beatles performed Hey Jude and Revolution on the David Frost show, the instrumental track was prerecorded but the vocals were recorded live at Twickenham studios. Or, it is possible that in this case it was all prerecorded.

The Film Noir styled video featured a smoke-filled (somewhat over the top) club of another time, somewhere in the 1940’s or 1950’s. It nevertheless featured a room air conditioner festooned with streamers that would not have been present in any such club of the era. The interesting features of the video include a mannequin sitting in a chair and two women who flank Dylan during one song. This is not enough to hold interest for 52 minutes. Well, maybe in Hollywood it is.

I have a conflicted relationship with rock music movies. At times they have captured historic performances well. Examples of this include Moterrey Pop and Woodstock. At other times I have seen cinematographers who were more concerned with special effects (Cream’s Farewell Tour) or who were so unfamiliar with the music that instead of focusing on the guitarist during the solo they focused on the bass player because he was bopping his head up and down (too many to name).

For all the fanboys and fanladies who will find fault with my review let me recite my bonifides. I have been a Dylan fan since around 1963. I have a sister who is eight years older than I am and she was a folk music afficianado since high school. I was six years old at the time but listened attentively to her records. I bought my first album, Nashville Skyline, in 1969 at the age of twelve. I quickly filled in the gaps in my collection starting with 1961’s Bob Dylan. I even dug Self Portrait, a double album that cost more than any album I had bought up to that time.

I think we should all be grateful that at 80 Dylan is giving of himself and doing anything publically. Many of us retire long before his age. I would be very happy if this material was released in any format. I would be thrilled if Mr. Dylan would be so kind as to record and release more of his previously recorded output with new arrangements and any accompanying video that he chooses. So, this is not a complaint or a rant. I am probably as much a fan of fiction as Bob is, but like him, I prefer to create my own.

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