Bob Dylan, like every other artist in the world, wasn’t able to tour for a few years because of the COVID epidemic. I’m sure this hit Dylan extra hard since he’s been on what they call the “Never Ending Tour” for years now. The guy is a road warrior. Anyway, he had to hit pause on that in 2020-2021. In lieu of touring, many artists took to the inter-web and did streaming stuff. Dylan was no exception and July 18th of 2021 he premiered what I thought was a concert event, Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs Of Bob Dylan. Contrary to what the Rock Chick thinks, we’re not made of money so I did not pay the fee to watch the thing and I remained under the impression it was a live event until only recently. Apparently, it was a film. Dylan brought in a director and actors to pretend to play the songs and filmed it. It was set in a basement bar, or so I hear. I heard good things about the film and still look forward to actually seeing it sometime… Now, two years down the road, Dylan has released “the soundtrack” featuring the tracks from the movie and it’s simply entitled, Shadow Kingdom.
The crux of the movie, and the recording that now accompanies it, was Dylan revisiting tracks from early in his career. While this isn’t a live recording, the album does feature new re-recorded versions of songs from through out Dylan’s career. Sadly, he didn’t include anything from his sensational latest LP, Rough And Rowdy Ways… I guess it would have been hard to include the almost 17 minute “Murder Most Foul,” but a man can wish, can’t he? He did have a great backing band on these tracks: legend T-Bone Burnett, much sought after session guys Greg Leisz and Tim Pierce, Steve Bartek and Ira Ingber all on guitar. Jeff Taylor and Doug lacy play the accordion which is quite prominent on these recordings. I heard a joke once, that the definition of a gentleman is a man who knows how to play the accordion but chooses not to… Have no fear the accordion works here… Producer Don Was plays upright bass and John Avila plays the electric bass. Surprisingly, Dylan does not use a drummer on these tracks. It’s not unheard of, Lou Reed didn’t use a drummer on his life LP Animal Serenade, but it was a surprise.
I have to admit, I didn’t have the highest expectations around these recordings. When I first approached this album I still thought it might be live. The last time I saw Dylan it was terrible. I couldn’t hear the vocal, it was way down in the mix. I couldn’t recognize many of the songs he played and I consider myself a Dylan-ophile. Frankly, opener Merle Haggard blew him off the stage. Dylan’s set list that night could best be described as “obscure.” That’s not the case with the song selection here. There are some of his most iconic songs: “Tombstone Blues,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Forever Young,” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” to name but a few. I was immediately drawn in. But what I didn’t expect was some of his better known, deeper tracks. I was thrilled to see “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as the opener. He also does the track “Watching The River Flown,” which originally could only be found on his first Greatest Hits LP. I was delighted to see “What Was It You Wanted” from 1989’s Oh Mercy!, the youngest track here. Suffice it to say, this is a great group of songs.
Once I started listening to these recordings, I was frankly, blown away. Perhaps it was the blessing of having low expectations. Dylan’s voice sounds better than it has in years. He sings with great emotion and nuance, on every song. Yes, his voice is weathered and fried from too many KOOL menthols, but he sounds great here. And lets be honest, if you’re complaining about Dylan’s voice you’re probably on the wrong train. The vibe of the music is that of a bluesy late night, after-hours bar where you’d have to have a password or know somebody to get in. The band sounds so great I don’t miss a drummer. As I mentioned the accordion is prevalent and it gives the songs, to my ear, a bit of a Southwest, Tex-Mex, down by the border flavor.
There are so many highlights. I love the opener, “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It’s a great tune and it’s done very well here. “Mostly Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” feels propulsive to the point you don’t miss the drums… almost, anyway. “Queen Jane Approximately” is dripping with longing. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” almost sounds rockabilly. These are great re-imaginings of these songs. I will admit, I always thought in “Tombstone Blues,” the lyric was “daddy’s in the alley looking for food,” and apparently Dylan has changed it to “looking for the fuse,” which makes it more menacing.
I love that he pulls out “What Was It You Wanted,” a great meditation on fame. The version of “Forever Young” here is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard. “Pledging My Time” is the bluesiest tune here and it’s wonderful. I was also delighted to see Dylan do “Wicked Messenger” which has been covered by both the Faces and Black Keys. This rendition of “Watching The River Flow” delivers the original’s rollicking fun in all it’s glory. There’s a new song, an instrumental, that I actually really enjoyed, “Sierra’s Theme.” It’s a hypnotic little number.
This album was just such a treat to listen to. I went in with low expectations and the band and Dylan’s singing just swept me away. Naturally, I’m a huge Dylan fan so I love all of the original versions of these songs but these re-imaginings are well worth your time. Dylan continues to excite and amaze some 60 years into the gig. This album is more than just a COVID-era artifact.
“Someday everything is gonna sound like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece…” Cheers!