Estimated reading time: 7 minute(s)

On July 18, 2021, Bob Dylan hosted his first online performance event – Shadow Kingdom. This event was Mr. Dylan’s first appearance since the release of his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the sale of his entire musical library to Universal Music.

My Concerns About a Bob Dylan Retirement Were Premature

All of this news made me – a self-described “neurotic Bob Dylan devotee” – concerned that perhaps the 80-year old legend was contemplating retirement. Mr. Dylan had given no sign of stopping during his fan-named “Never Ending Tour,” which began in 1988 and paused in 2020 only on account of the pandemic. Mr. Dylan never liked the “Never Ending Tour” moniker:

Critics should know there is no such thing as forever Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? Anybody ever say that Duke Ellington was on a Never Ending Bandstand Tour? These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.

Bob Dylan

Taking the pandemic-induced pause of Mr. Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, the money he reaped from the sale of his catalog, and his turning 80, I thought that he might have an incentive to take it easy. Fortunately for me and the legions of Dylan aficionados, it appears that he has plenty of performances left in him.

Prelude to Shadow Kingdom

Mr. Dylan announced that he would hold an online broadcast titled Shadow Kingdom. No additional details were forthcoming. Fans were left to interpret his cryptic announcement. Many ventured that the name Shadow Kingdom derived from a 1929 fantasy short story by Robert E. Howard. Mr. Dylan neither confirmed nor denied the truth behind the speculation.

Mr. Dylan eventually released a sample video to promote his mysterious event. The video had him performing in a small, smoky bar, accompanied by a medley of performers and dancing young women. The video was in black and white, giving it an old-time aesthetic, but it was anchored in our current time and place by the fact that the other musicians in the video were masked. The promotion noted that Mr. Dylan would only be performing reinterpretations of his early material. While I thought that this was a curious decision in light of the fact that fans would be clamoring to hear his newest pieces, I was not surprised to see Mr. Dylan defy expectations.

It was later hinted that Shadow Kingdom had been recorded in its entirety in March, meaning both that it would not be running live and also that Mr. Dylan would be accompanied by new young musicians.

Entering Shadow Kingdom

On July 18, 2021, I joined many other Dylan fans in logging into the Shadow Kingdom stream to watch it as soon as it became available – hooking my computer up to the family television. I had purchased my $25 ticket from Veeps one day earlier. That ticket gave me access to a page with a countdown timer.

A picture of Bob Dylan's Shadow Kingdom stream playing on a TV in Victor V. Gurbo's home.
Picture of Shadow Kingdom playing in Victor V. Gurbo’s living room

When the countdown ended, Mr. Dylan’s event began with yet another countdown timer – which caused the live chat accompanying the stream to explode from anticipation. When the show finally began, the consensus among viewers was that it was a terrific show.

The camera slowly panned above an audience that looked like it had been yanked out of an old film – accompanied by the iconic sound of Mr. Dylan’s harmonica. After panning, the camera revealed “the song and dance man” himself, brandishing an old arch top acoustic guitar – which I note was the first time in a long time that he had held an acoustic guitar on stage.

Behind Mr. Dylan stood four young accompanists – one man on an acoustic guitar, one man on an electric guitar, one man on accordion, and a woman on standup bass. His usual ensemble and the presence of percussion were absent. I experienced some minor technical issues during the screening, what I would describe as minimal glitches. From my view, the musicians seemed to be not entirely in sync, but the issue may have had to do with my connection. I dared not try to fix it out of concern that I would lose the entire show.

Save for these minor technical issues, the event proceeded smoothly and without flaw. While it was clear that Shadow Kingdom was a film rather than a live-recording, I very much appreciated what Mr. Dylan did in creating the aesthetic of the barrooms of yesteryear. I had always hoped that Mr. Dylan would produce high quality versions of his new spins on classic content – as he has rewritten many of the lyrics.

I Recommend Purchasing the Film Stream

If you happen to be reading this before the stream expires – noon on July 20, 2021 – I encourage you to pay the small $25 fee to gain access to the film.

The Shadow Kingdom Track List

In case you missed the stream, I will list below all of the songs that were included in the Shadow Kingdom stream, along with some additional information about each sound from Mr. Dylan’s website:

“When I Paint My Masterpiece”

Lyrics.

Written 1971, first released by The Band on their album Cahoots in 1971, but later released by Dylan on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II the same year. Performed live 182 times.

“Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Performed live 315 times.

“Queen Jane Approximately”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Performed live 315 times.

“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Performed live 444 times.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Performed live 243 times.

“Tombstone Blues”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Performed live 169 times.

“To Be Alone With You”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1969 album Nashville Skyline. Performed live 126 times.

“What Was It You Wanted”

Lyrics

Written for the 1969 album Oh Mercy. Performed live 22 times.

“Forever Young”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1974 album Planet Waves. Performed live 493 times.

“Pledging My Time”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Performed live 21 times.

“The Wicked Messenger”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Performed live 125 times.

“Watching the River Flow”

Lyrics.

Released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. Performed live 500 times.

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Lyrics.

Written for the 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home. Performed live 560 times.

On Bob Dylan’s Longevity

Take a moment to appreciate the fact that a musician’s early work can span a quarter-century – in Mr. Dylan’s case, from 1965-1989. Furthermore, it is remarkable to me that a single musician can perform a song live more than 500 times. Have you even hummed the same song in the shower 500 times? His longevity is remarkable.

Despite now being 80 years old, Mr. Dylan is still on point and does what he does with style. His voice in Shadow Kingdom sounded stronger than ever. Perhaps he benefited from the controlled setting, or maybe the year (mostly) off did him some good.

On the Performances in Shadow Kingdom

I will not go into detail on every song that Mr. Dylan performed in Shadow Kingdom – I hope that you are encouraged to watch the show for yourself first.

Most of the songs that Mr. Dylan performed as part of Shadow Kingdom were originally electric. While some were originally recorded with a folksy acoustic sound, it was interesting to hear these mostly 1960s-psychedelic electric songs reinterpreted with an acoustic guitar. I’d heard current versions of these songs with his usual band, but not dressed up quite like this. He produced singular renditions of these classic songs, often bearing little-to-no resemblance to their official original recordings as he is known to do. The renditions were fresh, interesting, and enjoyable to listen to. As I hoped, they also clearly showcased lyrical changes.

Mr. Dylan synthesized his love-affair with Frank Sinatra’s song book. I found that his reimaginations of his own songs resembled his interpretations of Sinatra’s work.

The cinematography of Shadow Kingdom was interesting. Mr. Dylan’s face was often shrouded in shadows, but he chose several moments to step into the light (accompanied by two lovely young ladies, of course). Each song flowed from one fictional bar to another, looking like scenes ripped from Casablanca.

It was a fun surreal time, and I encourage you to give it a watch if you can.

The Importance of the Delivery

Before concluding this article, I will mention one song in particular that Mr. Dylan described in a 2004 interview as being “magical” – It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding. The song is a solo acoustic number from his 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home (written in 1964). It runs 7 minutes and 29 seconds and is composed of a long string of poetry that will bring a susceptible listener to his or her knees. The psychedelic poetics of the period, mimicking the art of Ginsberg and Kerouac, run like a river through Mr. Dylan’s early 1960s albums.

A sketch of Bob Dylan done by Victor V. Gurbo in high school.
Victor V. Gurbo’s high school sketch of Bob Dylan

The song Tombstone Blues, while written in the same lyrical style, is delivered in a sort of country rock format. It comes off at first comical with lines like this:

“Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief Saying,
“Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

In contrast to the country rock delivery of the original recording of Tombstone Blues, Mr. Dylan’s rendition in Shadow Kingdom was dark, pensive, and contemplative. Half the battle is the delivery, and all of Mr. Dylan’s material from that period had the same “magic” that he described in It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.

Mr. Dylan still has it in him to deliver that magic 57 years later.