At the start of When I Paint My Masterpiece, the first song of Bob Dylan’s live stream, you can hear a mouth organ. But no one is playing harmonica – at least not visibly. Not Dylan, commanding the stage at what looks like a prohibition-era speakeasy, nor any of his four-piece band: masked, young, diverse. And so begins Shadow Kingdom – an enigma wrapped in a visually stunning conundrum masquerading as a livestreamed performance: Dylan’s first. Originally available to rewatch for just 48 hours after broadcast, you can now still buy the stream until 4am Monday 26 July (expires 8am).
It’s not a concert, but a heady simulacrum of the perfect gig. Some nicely turned-out punters sit at tables nursing tumblers of drink and smoking like it’s mandatory: the luckiest extras in film. The credits thank a certain Bon Bon Club, Marseille. There is no such club in Marseille, but there was one in Philadelphia in the 60s, notorious for a racketeering scandal, according to one US Dylan-watcher.
Wherever we are, whenever we are, the atmosphere is on point. The lighting? Cinematic, dappled. The action? Rendered in black and white. People dance. A waitress casually brings more drinks. A ventilation duct blows tinsel streamers. It’s the dive bar of dreams, where Dylan is in excellent voice, his instrument clearly benefiting from the enforced break from active touring. He hasn’t performed in public since his Never Ending Tour hit a hiatus in December 2019; his last broadcast performance was in 1994. Tender on Queen Jane Approximately, sneery to the verge of self-parody on Tombstone Blues, his vocals become arch on the playful To Be Alone With You. Best of all is his poignant drawl on a sensational What Was It You Wanted, a series of accusatory questions that stress how slippery knowledge is.
He is, of course, an inveterate trickster. Billed as The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, and teased by a snippet of the rarely heard Watching the River Flow, this set finds Highway 61 Revisited revisited a few times. But some of the songs Dylan plays tonight don’t quite fit the bill. What Was It You Wanted, for one, dates from 1989’s Oh Mercy.
To add to this mounting sense of artistry bound up with no little artfulness, Dylan’s performance isn’t live. For an artist so wedded to the idea of the troubadour life, it’s significant that these are 11 stagey tableaux filmed by director Alma Har’el, employing several different set-ups. The speakeasy gives way to black-and-white checked linoleum with what looks like a boat sail behind Dylan. Dylan has long been wary of closeups. But on a radical rereading of I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, he allows the camera to come in very close indeed.
Tonight’s tunes bear little resemblance to their recorded forebears. Everything here is rejigged magnificently
Certainly, these scenarios recreate the vibe of the sleeve art of last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. But in a blog post, the journalist Richard Williams suggests that the live stream’s aesthetic might be inspired by the 2017 stage musical Girl from the North Country, based on the songs of Dylan, which met with the musician’s approval.
Love and theft are two concepts that sometimes elide in Dylan’s modus operandi. A US Dylanologist, Scott Warmuth, runs a forensic Twitter feed dedicated to how Dylan may – ahem – acquire inspiration for his lyrics and his visual artworks from all sorts of places, from Henry Rollins to art catalogues (“overlaps in intertextuality”, Warmuth calls them).
Dylan plays fast and loose with his own work, too. New arrangements are no novelty in this artist’s vast body of work, but tonight’s tunes bear little resemblance to their recorded forebears. Everything here is rejigged magnificently, more or less in keeping with the style of the engrossing Rough and Rowdy Ways – minus the album’s proliferation of piano. All is loose, jazzy, often acoustic; there is no drummer to keep time – because that would be too definite, and we are in a realm where it could be the 20s or the 40s, night or day.
The songs are short, relayed over a tight 50-minute set, their titles often truncated on the screen: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – the last song, fittingly – is now just Baby Blue. A few songs have significant new lyrics. When I Paint My Masterpiece features amended words that Dylan had been using live pre-lockdown. (“Sometimes I feel like my cup is running over!” he gargles breezily.) To Be Alone With You has undergone a substantial – and timely – rewrite. “I know you’re alive, and I am too. My one desire is to be alone with you,” Dylan sings.
It wouldn’t be curmudgeonly to suggest that these 13 performances amount to 13 really excellent music videos. It’s an impression reinforced by the fact that the musicians – Buck Meek from Big Thief; Joshua Crumbly from Kamasi Washington’s band; veteran band-hopper Shahzad Ismaily on accordion; upright bassist Janie Cowan; and lesser-known guitarist Alex Burke – make shapes with their hands that don’t fit the music coming out of the audio feed.
Are they miming? Is Dylan miming, hiding behind his vintage microphone? Are the cigarettes real or are they stage props? Would it matter if they were? After all, Dylan did warn us this was his “shadow kingdom”, where things might not be as they appear, where a simulacrum of the best gig ever can beat a real gig, and where the play of chiaroscuro is all.
Bob Dylan: Shadow Kingdom is available online until 4am BST Monday 26 July