Bob Dylan: Beat King of the Shadow Kingdom

Shadow Kingdom’s aesthetic

At 2pm on Sunday, July 18th, Dylan performed a live show, available to stream on Veep for $25. It was labeled The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, and before I say another word, you need to know, if he releases any more of these shows, you should rush to buy tickets, draw the curtains to shut out this ugly modern world of sorrow, pour yourself a Heaven’s Gate whiskey, light a smoke, and settle down into the sepia world of Dylan and the magic purity that his songs create. This Dylan show was the heavy cream, the full-fat scarlet coca-cola, the absolute bees’ knees, worth every cent and then some. If you are wondering if it is worth the time or the money, or if it will feel not so special because of the distance between us and Dylan over the internet, you should feel reassured that the amount of care that went into this event made it something very special indeed. It was a stunning, important, historical performance by Dylan. It made up for the 1991 show I saw where Dylan seemed to hate everyone in the room and the songs were unrecognizable. I don’t even remember it, now. We are good. I take this show as an offering of love towards his audience and a recognition we have been on this journey of a creative lifetime with Dylan, the highway-booted pied piper with his harp and guitar and some real wild mercury words.

The promo vid had Dylan singing Watch the River Flow from a dark cafe, and the first words out of his mouth were “Don’t have much to say…” this should have been signal enough to tell us Bob had a lot to say tonight, indeed. The noir stage of the smokey Bon Bon Club was the perfect setting with it’s cast of retro nostalgic-costumed club members, who stepped right out of the Rough and Rowdy Ways cover art. The atmospheric strips of foil blowing from vents and hanging from the ceiling framing the shots gave the sensation of air and movement, and the performances are similarly glittering, light and airy.

It was almost a movie, nearly a passion play with its heavily dressed theatrical staging, full of icons of 20th century style and cultural references which felt organic and alive rather than false and forced (I felt those old school tube amps), and an unusually effusive Bob. Dylan put all of himself into the performance: he promised much, and delivered the whole package. This was live Dylan at his finest, performing his songs with care and devotion. There have been shows where I have suspected Dylan hated the fans and held them in contempt, but not today. From the arrangements of the songs, the venue, the inviting intimacy of the experience, there was not one wrong note. Today Dylan was giving more of himself than the assembled vultures (of which I am one) deserved.

It is kudos to the costume designer that the bemasked band came on more like Zorro than casualties of a very modern pandemic. In fact, the costuming and choice of cast members, ranging from a dilettante Rimbaud look alike, dressed in 19th century suit and rags who dances with a woman in evening wear who looks ready to go listen to Ma Rainey and Beethoven, while a man in Robert Johnson hat and slacks swigs from a dark bottle of beer and moves all alone in the crowd. Welcome to the Shadow Kingdom: King Bob is in the house.

The show is shot putting the viewer amongst the audience, giving us a window into the world of Dylan and the scenes and people that influenced him, we get to see the world through his eyes, through the smokey lens of genius, and it is triumphant, poignant, nostalgic, evocative and an ultimately engaging performance. The songs were immediately recognizable, the treatment of them was respectful of their art and importance, and the fact they mean so much to so many people. There as no guessing what he was playing tonight!

In stripping away the excess, taking it down to black and white, giving us a semi-acoustic, pared back band performance, which put the songs front and center, and by Dylan once again picking up a guitar and by the intimacy afforded by the safety of the physical distance between us and him, whilst allowing the screen to give us the best seats in the house, Dylan opened up more than I have ever seen him divulge and share of himself and his insights. This was the significant and important Dylan live show to bookend the other important live Dylan performances: Newport 1963, 64, and 65; Manchester Free Trade Hall, in 1966, The live Basement Tape recordings of 1975 and the accompanying Rolling Thunder Tour of later that year and into the next, culminating in The Neverending Tour that got ended by the virus and now this: Dylan’s performance reaches the ultimate pinnacle of his art, mixing words, music and auteur Felliniesque moodishness in a glorious medicine for our locked down souls. This is the beat La Dolce Vita I want to inhabit.

This was billed as ‘live’, but the careful aesthetic, editing, camera work, the lack of talk, the movie-standard recording and the cast of mood setters, as well as the absolutely first-class flawless performance of both Bob and his unobtrusive and sympathetic band, who didn’t seek to do anything but embellish and stay out of the way unless required, does not give the impression that this was streamed as Dylan performed. It felt very much pre-recorded, and no worse because of it. Please, more of the same, and I am happy to be corrected!

Dylan gave us something very important today, he gave us that thing all us fans have been salivating for: an insight into his songs, a lyrical crutch, a helping hand to get us to the meaning, to the dark heart of the matter, to where he’s coming from, where he has been and what that led him, traveling that endless highway of the Neverending Tour, to this point, at the furthest mark away from these early songs, in a nostalgic road trip back through the years.

Shadow Kingdom was not just about the songs, it was a visual feast, drawing us in with him, into that ‘dark cafe’ that he sings about in As The River Flows. I was concerned that the show was going to be a little aseptic, a touch cold in this corona era of having to watch from our own homes, but Dylan overcomes this problem, but inviting us into a party with a fabulously atmospheric cast, in the kind of perfect intimate dream venue that Dylan has always shone in. I always wondered what it was like to be at The Gaslight in 1963, and now I know.

This cast of players – thin blonde Rimbaud types with delicate fingers and messy hair, wearing the costumes of the poets, while Robert Johnson’s ghost dances alone to Dylan as he holds a bottle of beer and a smoke, flanked by Etta James beauties and Ma Rainey blues girls as they pay their respects, girls with cigarettes, and burlesque costumes, girls in sexy 1950s style, coming on like the memory of Echo, the north country girl from Hibbing, all wide eyes and red lipstick. Yes these Goddesses with sly smiles that gaze towards Dylan, tough hard bitten types groove and drink to pure distilled Truth and Beauty, along with the cast of judges, sweethearts, and lumberjacks that play bit parts in the epic audio tale of Dylan over the last sixty years or so. We are put right in amongst this action, dancing right along with these ghosts of past songs and scenes. Bob has been with all of us who are alive in this world today, throughout our lives, as we have been alongside him, and it has been a difficult relationship, but one which feels partly healed by this intimate performance. We have finally be allowed beyond the veil, into the room, in the middle of some of the most important parts of the life of Dylan and those that matter to him. Finally, we the fans, matter to Bob, and it is glorious.

No unrecognizable boogie woogie versions of his backpages, nothing changed too far from the original recordings, except when it is stripped back to allow Dylan room to explain with gesture and emphasis, what exactly the lyrics mean, and I feel kinda dirty saying this, but this is strongly the feeling I got – Dylan was trying to open the door into the songs, and if they are still opaque, still not understood, if we still have to ask “what does it all mean” then the joke and the shame, is on us.

This was a short 50 minute showcase of the early songs of Bob Dylan, with an eclectic set list.

  1. When I Paint my Masterpiece
  2. Most Likely You Go Your Way
  3. Queen Jane
  4. I’ll Be Your Baby
  5. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  6. Tombstone Blues
  7. To Be Alone With You
  8. What Was It You Wanted
  9. Forever Young
  10. Pledging my Time
  11. Wicked Messenger
  12. Watching the River Flow
  13. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Walking into the dark of the Bon Bon Club in Marseilles, where this was shot, our eyes led to the stage where Bob stands, guitar strapped on for what seems like the first time in an era – the last time he played a guitar live was 2012. Since then he has been found at the keyboards, but not tonight, tonight he was back with the machine that kills fascists, playing his own songs, and behind backed by the most sympathetic band Bob could have wished for consisting of Big Thief’s guitarist Buck Meek, Alex Burke, Janie Cowen, Joshua Crumbly, and Shazhad Ismaily.

Dylan kicked off with When I Paint My Masterpiece. The song is toned down and slowed down with a cool conversational vibe, a relaxed swing club dark aesthetic. The director places us at the back of the club, as if we had just walked in, in time to see the opening track, and with the air of a passer-by stumbling across the Gaslight performances in 1963, we see Bob on the stage with his acoustic guitar strapped to him, looking like a man who isn’t aware that we, the audience have longed to see him back on guitar since he stopped playing it live in 2012! Dylan, cool as ever doesn’t acknowledge our joy, or the dissonance of this scene, he plunges us into the Shadow Kingdom before we can complain that we prefer him on keyboards. And complain people did. The live chat, which I muted pretty early on, was a raft of complaints and bitching, and made me realize that none of us deserve Bob at all.

This is a smokey kingdom, cigarettes are stuck into headstocks, behind ears, smoke rings are blown, and the tobacco rises. This is hardboiled Noir, this is Keroac’s Beat Kingdom, this is a nod to Guthrie and the rail-riding boys. Welcome to the new basement tapes – the Bon Bon club movies, and just when we think we have heard everything we were going to hear from Dylan, he comes up with something new. This performance is not quite acoustic, but it is dialed back, minimal electric, and the lyrics, the tunes, and Bob are center stage once again. Bob takes us on his journey through what it is like to tour as Dylan, the hotels, the dirty gondolas (which Bob replaces with crimson cola in this performance), the cops and the candy chewing reporters, but this time, Bob is trying something dangerous, he is trying to tell us, to show us, to involve us to let us in. The gates to the Shadow Kingdom are wide open! Let the ‘train wheels’ of ‘memory’ roll! Bob isn’t singing, he isn’t performing, he is reenacting the circumstances of his life, and we get to watch the master paint his masterpiece. The Coliseum is the coliseum of public opinion, and bob can’t “stand to see ’em” he tell us. I really don’t blame him at all. The some day that Dylan is talking about, has been and gone already, and not only that is taking place before our eyes. This is Dylan’s masterpiece!

You Go Your Way has got strut and guts, Bob is still one cool old goat. Standing behind the cast, involving us in the social scene of the performance was genius, it makes these plague years all the much less sterile. This anti sterility, the smoke and the sweat, the move and the touch before our eyes, is strong medicine. The barriers between us and Dylan that he has fought so hard to build, melt away, and I have never felt closer to Dylan actually talking to the audience so personally and intimately. The audience have plenty of cast members to identify with, from the older man smoking and drinking at a table alone, to the lovers dancing and kissing to some low swing blues cool version of Pledging My Time, we are all invited to the party, there is a place for us in the Shadow Kingdom.

A technical glitch in the transmission caused it to cut out now and again, though reloading the page kickstarted it again, and it is available to rewatch for the next 48 hours, caused me to miss part of Queen Jane Approximately. When it kicked back in halfway through the songs, I was astonished. Bob is not messing with his songs! He was performing a stripped back, loving version of Queen Jane, the song that has been with him for almost a lifetime, inspired by the Queen Jane folk standard he must have played and heard back in the NYC folk clubs in the early 60s, and it was astonishing to watch. When he pulled his harmonica out, I was swooning in bliss. Bob gave exactly what I would want from a performance. This was no self-indulgent experimentalism, this was perfectly faithful to the songs we love and hold dear and that have become part of our cultural lexicon and formed the punctuation musically to entire lifetimes. Bob sings “I’ll be your baby tonight” and by the ghost of ‘lectricity in the face of Johanna, was he! Bob the crowd pleaser! Bob providing the helping hand into meaning, casting pearls before us, no matter the behavior or lack of appreciation of the peanut throwing assembled masses.

The years melt off Bob, partly due to some very sympathetic cinematography and lighting, Bob Dylan is being Dylan here, perfectly and absolutely. He is putting on that greasepaint and painting the illusions, and let’s face it, this is the Bob we all want to see, this is the world we are so fond of, that holds so much magic. This is the literary catalog of the world that won him a noble prize, this is our modern mythology and he is a new world literary troubadour titan.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues‘s visuals echo the aesthetic of the recording for the show Quest, made on February 1, 1964, at CBC TV Studios in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The cast of hardbitten men, drinking, smoking, hanging out after a hard day chopping wood, to listen to Dylan. Dylan was writing for these blue collar men too, just as his hero, Woody Guthrie did these men who farmed, and struggled and lost and could not feed their families, and ended up sitting in a dive listening to Bob. This nod to Woody was one of the most moving and beautiful things I have seen on a screen since Casablanca. Here is the roots of his genius, Bob is the ultimate conversationalist with songs. Not only this, his voice is gorgeous beautiful, strong, assured, as his is harmonica and guitarwork. Bob is perfectly aged. Bob has blossomed into the master he was born to be.

After stunning with the gentle Queen Jane, showing her his love and kindness, his softer side, Dylan shows us that he ain’t no coward, and flaunts his simple song and dance man chops, I’ll Be Your Baby, rocks and swings it’s eponymous baby hard, while a couple of woman flank him like Muses or Furies. The dark beauty on his left brushes some invisible dust off Bob’s shoulder, as Echo Nordstom’s grown up doppelganger stands and pouts. Bob is coming to us from the past, transmitting from the airways and the byways of times that we are forever divided from, allowing us and himself a small measure of nostalgia and not a little haunting wistfulness. This is a past we would all love to exist within, even if it is only for 30 minutes in the safety of our own houses, watching into this window to the existentialist prophet’s Shadow Kingdom that exists under our noses, down alley ways and behind doors in Marseilles at the Bon Bon clue when the “circus is in town” with Dylan. This is noir at it’s finest, a lush collage of textures and veils, shades of grey and gorgeous looking back to a period I would love to dive into and inhabit, even if it had to be as a ghostly at the back of the bar.

Bob is taking us through a trip through his early catalog, that is lionized and mythologized and given ultimate rewards and has caused grown men to comb through his trash and demand unreasonable answers. I was always happy to come to my own conclusions, but since the message was not received loud and clear Dylan is acting out these songs, with looks and actions, mime and emphasis.

It was easy to feel as if Bob was talking right to me when he sang Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, as corny as it feels to suggest that, I am not too proud, I’ll admit it, he drew me in all the way, and there is the genius, every single person watching this will have felt like Dylan was talking to them, a line here, a moment there, a look, a lick, and this ability to tune into the zeitgeist is his genius, the reasons for his success, the intimacy that has made him so very artistically successful.

Bob sits off to the left of the frame, around him an echo of a reconstruction of that Canadian Quest show recording, with its’ lumberjacks and bunkhouse squalor, and Bob talking to these Steinbeck-ian men, shooting the breeze and telling them he ‘is going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” Here is the ‘in’ people have been looking for. If you want to know what Dylan was thinking when he wrote Tom Thumb’s Blues, he acts it out right here. The men. The bunk house, Canada. Missing New York, drinking too much, no one having his back. Tom Thumb’s Blues is what happens before Desolation Row is reached, it is a catalog of the route down, and these men, once comforted by Guthrie, once understood and loved by him and his machine that kills Fascists, are now being elevated by Dylan. These are the songs of the poor, the road trippers, the struggle of people who are told this land is made for you and me, then the door is shut on them. Not only this, Dylan’s cast of club members looks like a love letter to black America that he embraced and who embraced Dylan in return. As I went to my door to speak to the shelter workers of this mostly black-church run shelter, mid-show, wearing my Dylan shirt, Bob singing in the background, the young black man who I count as a friend, told me affectionately that his elders love Bob and he will listen to him, and that Bob is a “true g” and much loved as an ally to the civil rights cause, and you know what, that makes my heart glad. Dylan is bringing the good people, the hard workers, the lovers, those that are inclusive into the fold, and it looks a bit like a foreshadowing of heaven.

Tombstone Blues turns into a barely sung rap in the style of Subterranean Homesick Blues. Every word is enunciated, performed and given the proper weight. I have never heard this song so clearly, not even in its original studio recording. From the black and white kitchen tiles of the shot, mirroring the kitchen the Dylan narrator sits in during the song. I will say this now, if you don’t get this song now, you never will: there is no hope for you. Dylan is taking us to school, minor band atmospherics (Buck does a good job here…I sometimes give Buck a hard time, but he was excellent with Dylan tonight), it’s mostly Bob and his voice and the words.

This song has been performed 21 times before this time tonight, and this is the definitive version. The absolute pinnacle. Bob points to his hip as he talks about the ‘geometry of innocent flesh on the bone’ causes the genius Galileo to throw down his mathbook work: the perfection of the female form cannot be bested by math or man, no matter how much we try to explain, beauty speaks for itself, and innocence cannot be fathomed or added in, and the effect cannot be calculated by simple sums alone. What is the point adding it all up when the answer and the result is untouchable desireable beauty? It was about this time that I sat speechless and adoring. I am in love all over again. As important as Rimbaud. As loving and as giving a performance of any song that has ever been offered by an artist as an act of extreme creative generosity. Watch this and get it. Watch it and marvel. This is what makes us human, and what raises us above the beasts: art.

To Be Alone With You kicks it up a notch, gets the groove on lets us and the club blow off some steam after that heavy dose of Truth. I got up and danced around my room in the shelter, kicking off my slippers and spinning a reluctant teenage boy around. This was a hopping, joyous boogie, and for once I was not sneering at the power of fun. Alive and vital and energetic. Bob is louche and hip, and there is nowhere else I would rather be. Bob, ‘my mortal bliss is to be alone with you.’

What Was It You Wanted slammed into the show like a freight train. Intense. He wants to know something from his audience: what was it that we wanted from him while we were kissing his cheek. Bob martyred by fame, Bob wanting to know what was it we wanted from him? “Whatever you wanted slipped out of my mind, would you remind me again, if you would be so kind’. My tears fall as I ask myself what it was that I wanted from Dylan? Did he give it tonight? Who are we anyway? Why do we feel entitled to Bob? Is it because we are looking to Dylan as a modern prophet? Do we think he can solve the world’s problems because he can write a song which makes us feel, which makes us cry, which makes us want and long and linger, did we think we owned him? Did I? “Did someone tell ya, you could get it from me” Dylan sings. I shake my head and look away in shame. The thorn is being removed from the relationship between Bob and his fans in this song. The upsets, impositions and is anger aired and defused, and once the exorcism is completed, Bob launches into a blessing upon his fans.

Forever Young, is the medicine needed after bob’s aggressive and justified questioning. Dylan dispenses love and kindness, forgiveness and blessings fall from his prophets’ mouth. The stage shows some people playing instruments, backs turned, in the background, the lights and shadows fall, and Dylan is back with his guitar. and the sight of it is astoundingly powerful. Bob and us, Bob and his fans are good. No hard feelings. The beauty of the wishes he lays on us in Forever Young are many and varied: Busy hands, swift feet, safety, foundations, happy hearts and youth forever and ever. Amen. What is more, Bob means it, he isn’t jiving us, he isn’t toying, Bob is for real, and so is his Shadow Kingdom.

Dylan is singing stripped down album versions and it is astounding to listen to, not just to watch. Pledging my Time is a stoned halting, swinging dance, the club is slow dancing sexily getting up close to each other. A man dressed in the manner of Robert Johnson in a trilby and a suit sways alone center stage, in a clever blues nod to the crossroads. He stands there alone while the lovers sway, and Bob promises at least his time.

Wicked Messenger has a seated crowd, and we are watching Bob from a distance, at the back of the audience, seeing the heads of those in front of us, telling us a story, delivering the message, performing a homily in the shadows punctuated by Meek’s guitar between verses in a neat little western-movie-saloon-infused trick. The lit cigarette in Meek’s headstock is a neat little theme continuation device, these early years saturated in the smoke and the mists of time. When the room refocuses and the lights stop blinding us, we are let into Watching The River Flow and it is a party, people are up on their feet, as Bob watches the river of the faces flow before him. Dylan becomes the audience and we are the assembled ‘clowns’ doing tricks for Bob, it is the least we can do to amuse him and give him something to look at after all these years of truth and fortune, of insight and fame and the pleasure and reality of the genius of Dylan’s creative output.

The club members give Dylan a well deserved round of applause, as it sound melts into the finale: It’s All Over now Baby Blue. I haven’t loved this song live this much since watching the performances of it from the 1960s. This is the last word on the song, it was so perfect that it has no where to go from here. This feels like Dylan waving goodbye to these songs, to us, to the old long-held hatred of his fans, to hang ups and sadnesses. This is no young man’s vitriolic Baby Blue, this song has depth it never had before, it occupies that feeling that it really might well be all over now – the virus, Bob’s age, the weight of the awards and laurels cast towards our strange young man that chose to get old, that kissed genius full on the lips and is now a master, a craftsman, a man who knows just what to lay on, and what to hold off. It is one of the single most perfect performances I have ever witnessed.

If and when Dylan throws another party, it will be the place to be. I am holding out for Abandoned Love. My life might be made perfect if I can look into his eyes and feel that song, just as for fifty minutes this afternoon I witnessed perfection and wanted to forever inhabit the Kingdom of Shadows that Bob weaves through the force of his soul and the power of his art. Bob Dylan painted his live performance masterpiece. Be in awe. This time won’t come again.

10/10

6 Comments

  1. lifelessons

    I saw Bob Dylan in Guadalajara in 2008 in the Guadalajara Telmex Theater. What a disappointment. The orchestra was unremarkable, the arrangements all so changed that some of my favorite songs were unrecognizable and he made no attempt to relate to the audience. So glad to hear your review of his latest as it sounds like he has perhaps returned to his old style. Yes, I was and still am a huge Dylan fan, but the performance I saw in no was resembled the Dylan I knew and loved. At one point, someone called out, “Don’t get fancy, Bobby!!!” which pretty much summed up the night.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      This was the real deal – the songs all sounded like they should, it was not fancy, it was stripped back, pared down, Bob on guitar, and a band that didn’t get in the way. It was absolutely perfect. Really really. Worth listening to, worth buying, worth going to the next one! I hope to see you there! He has let me down in the past too – much the same story, but not tonight, tonight he was magnificent. The songs were as they should be. Promise. You can trust me – you really need this! It is gorgous visually too xx

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