The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle
—Tombstone Blues, Bob Dylan
If Americana is what describes Bob Dylan songs, his latest offering, a 50-minute film that shows him singing a dozen of his most loved songs, must be the visual equivalent of that description. Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, is a noir-ish, stylized film that is Dylan’s first outing, if you can call it that, since 2019.
At 80, there is no stopping Bob Dylan. Rather than rest on the laurels of his Nobel Prize for literature, he is keen to keep moving artistically. He gave us his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, in 2020—and, going by the accolades it received from critics, this could be the start of an astonishing phase in his career, pretty much unparalleled in modern popular music.
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Dylan had been touring. With the Never Ending Tour, which began back in 1988, he has been back every year, hitting city after city across continents. In 2019, he gave 39 concerts in 30 American cities, and another 38 concerts in 33 cities of Europe. Then the pandemic struck, forcing Dylan to cancel his 2020 dates—that’s 16 concerts in Japan and 26 concerts across 25 cities in America.
So when streaming platform Veeps announced Shadow Kingdom, with tickets priced at $25, fans went delirious. It would be, said Veeps, Dylan’s “first concert performance since December 2019,” and many fans mistook it to mean a live streaming. After all, Dylan, notoriously camera-shy, had last appeared in a television performance (MTV Unplugged) back in 1994.
It wasn’t live streamed of course, but who’s complaining?
Shot in black-and-white with Dylan singing to 15 smartly turned-out men and women acting as the audience in a smoke-filled bar room, Shadow Kingdom is everything the devoted fan expected of this much-hyped event. Every song has a slightly different setting and camera angle. And every song has a twist—Dylan’s left the melodies more or less untouched but played around with the tempo, with surprising results.
That’s one way—an inventive way—to reimagine a song. And the best example of it was Tombstone Blues. The fast-paced song with its withering look at society from his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited is now slowed down to near free-time by Dylan. Here it is ruminative, sounding close to melancholy in the chorus:
Mama’s in the factory she ain’t got no shoes,
Daddy’s in the alley, he’s look for the fuse,
I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues
The 1965 recording has Dylan singing, “Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food.” But the thoughtful man, backed by a mellow, mostly acoustic band, is a different kind of an artist today: that much has been clear for some time now. The 12 songs Dylan sang are all from the late '60s and early '70s, except one (What Was It You Wanted, from the popular 1989 album Oh Mercy—that could be, fans will hope, his way of saying, hang in there, there’s more to come).
It is Highway 61 Revisited that forms the core of the performance, with three songs from it – Queen Jane Approximately, Just Like Tom Thumb Blues and Tombstone Blues.
That’s not surprising. In the only volume of his autobiography thus far, Chronicles Vol 1, Dylan describes this highway as “the main thoroughfare of the country blues,” which begins in his birthplace Duluth, a port city in the northern state of Minnesota. “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it, and could go anywhere from it…” writes Dylan. “It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors.”
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Shadow Kingdom has the feel of a bar in a one-horse town, a slightly sleepy band playing to chain-smoking regulars, gripped by the singer-songwriter, who, looking a lot younger than his 80 years suddenly, holds them with his eyes: here's one pied piper they won’t dare put in prison.
Dylan’s journey began in Duluth with Highway 61, it was revisited in 1965, and it has just entered a brand new phase: guess what, the man’s riding the digital freeway, and he’s singing like a dream.