The pandemic forced Bob Dylan to suspend his Never Ending Tour (this one, a coupla weeks before he took a break that lasted 20 months and counting) though 2020 didn’t see the poet laureate of the USA resting, instead he released the terrific album #39 Rough And Rowdy Ways. In May of this year Dylan turned 80 and live recorded these oldies with a band I don’t recognize -no Charlie Sexton for one, then filmed them in a 1920s style speakeasy that morphs into a cantina for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blue” for his return to the stage, and to television concerts for the first time since 1995’s “MTV Unplugged” with “Shadow Kingdom”
To me, the early songs of Bob Dylan ends no later than the second side of Another Side Of and here Zim and I disagree because the earliest songs we get are from his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and the latest nearly 25 years after that with Oh Mercy. But in spirit, and in voice, the set is a recherché de temp perdu performed in a timeless, smoke filled, dimly lit and shadowy clubland with an embrace of his youth and the entire band except Zim wearing face masks a la coronavirus days. Dylan appears almost like a steely eyed ghost haunting his past in an alternate Dylanverse: if he had released in in July 2020 instead of July 2021, it would have stood alongside his greatest moments.
Sometimes, Dylan’s versions of his oldies (and newies for that matter) can be completely bewildering, though not in “Shadow Kingdom” for the most part. The closing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a deadly rewrite and “Tombstone Blues” walking blues slow asf defines useless and pointless knowledge. Sometimes, the reworkings are ones we’ve already heard, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has had “crimson and clover” for a few years now and similarly to the not performed “Simple Twist Of Fate” is usually rewritten. But here are two lines from the “Masterpiece,” guess which is the original and which is the rewrite:
Someday everything’s gonna be beautiful
Someday everything’s gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
It’s still a fine version, as is the other Greatest Hits II song, “Watching The River Flow” -we don’t get “really shook” but we absolutely get “If I had wings…”. They are both fine takes and not even the highlights, a beautiful and brooding “Queen Jane Approximately” is the best moment of the evening, but the two Blonde On Blonde songs are right up there, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I Go Mine)” and the blues waltz “Pledging My Time”. “Likely”‘s always had it both ways, a break up song where Dylan doesn’t have the power the force of the music implies he has has, the “on my knees” add is very strong, “Pledging My Time” is the first time he has performed it on stage since 1999, and defines a treat. The best “Tom’s Thumb Blues” I ever saw had Neil Young singing with him at Roseland in 1993, this one is helped by a vision of the cover of Knocked Out Loaded, performed a moment before the artistic rendering of the cover fight. The Oh Mercy “What Is It You Wanted” is given a serious rethink and I can see why he included but it didn’t work, the rockabilly “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” certainly did.
The evening is a smooth like a rhapsody 45 minutes, a sleek and strong, lip synched, live on tape not film. If the Dylan at 80 beautifully sung set of old timers isn’t the show of his life, it is a show that missed its moment by a year and still in a tempting dream of a shadow world where everything is and isn’t what it was, both exists in the moment and in a different moment. At eighty years of age, you are not simply surrounded a ghost, you are fading into the shadows yourself, Dylan isn’t fighting against the dimming light and shade, he is embracing his immortality among its earliest incarnation.
“Shadow Kingdom” is available here till JUL 21, 2021 · 2:59AM EDT
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