Bob Dylan in 2019
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA
Here's What Went Down At Bob Dylan's Mysterious "Shadow Kingdom" Livestream Concert
Ever since Bob Dylan announced his "Shadow Kingdom" livestream on the Veeps platform, its origins have been shrouded in, well, shadow. So many questions swirled around his fan community: Why did Dylan wait until gigs were coming back, at least in America, to hold a livetream? Would Blake Mills or Fiona Apple, who memorably appeared on Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, show up to jam?
The lead-up wasn't completely detail-free: A July 1 Instagram preview offered a sneak peek of the event’s atmosphere, with a subtitle reading "The Early Songs of Bob Dylan." But that was all that fans from Mobile to Mozambique had to work with. Right until the timer ticked to zero—and then, perversely, flipped back to 10 minutes—they clamored for answers in the comments.
Then, an 80-year-old Dylan materialized in a throwback juke joint, surrounded by barflies and vagabonds, with a masked and anonymous band and laid into a bunch of tunes he hadn't performed in years, including some he hadn't played since the Clinton administration. The people watching in between offered an extra layer of curiosity: Dylan's zany zebra shirt, mysterious ladies gazing into the camera for minutes at a time, and enough cigarette smoke to worry a climate scientist.
Some viewers craved Rough and Rowdy Ways in its entirety: When Dylan and the group kicked things off with 1971's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," they probably deflated a bit. Still, the performance was lovely, establishing both the instrumental palette (mandolin, upright bass, accordion, and Dylan on acoustic guitar) and visual language (monochrome, floating between the turn of the century and the 1950s).
As the tunes tumbled along, from "Queen Jane Approximately" to "Tombstone Blues," it became apparent what Dylan wasn't going to play: no "Blowin' in the Wind," no "The Times They Are A-Changin'," no topical tunes of yore to speak to our battered moment today. But what fans ultimately experienced was a masterful performance, one which showed how bulletproof even his slightly lesser-known songs remain all these years later
And as for that "early songs" subheadline? That designation stretched all the way forward to 1989. One of the absolute highlights of the event came via a rare performance of "What Was It You Wanted," an Oh Mercy ballad that not even a diehard Dylanologist would have expected. (He hasn't performed the song live since 1995.) But as with other deep cuts, like 1967's "The Wicked Messenger," it stood tall next to Dylan’s greatest hits.
Even with its conservative concept, presentation and vibe, "Shadow Kingdom" was a sometimes mind-blowing crash course in the power of words and melodies. It wasn't a given that Dylan would perform "Forever Young" accompanied by tack piano, giving it a glimmer that reminds us that Elliott Smith worshipped him. But it underlined its sentiment like never before, imbuing a radio-rock favorite with fresh layers of emotion.
After an unforgettable version of "It's All Right Now, Baby Blue"—a song covered by the Byrds, the 13th Floor Elevators and numberless other acts—that unfurled like a tapestry, the program ended unceremoniously after almost exactly an hour. Fans waiting for a sequel with "Murder Most Foul" in there will have to come back next time, if there ever will be a next time.
For all that, the "Shadow Kingdom" livestream offered more than enough for devotees to chew on and underlined a basic truth: Everyone who picks up a guitar and a pen has had to reckon with Bob Dylan. And there he was, right in his wheelhouse, a Janus-like bluesman, the keeper of his kingdom. We may never see the likes of him again.