Bob Dylan’s streaming concert Shadow Kingdom was released on Sunday, and it was cooler and weirder than anything we dared to imagine. Instead of a traditional Never Ending Tour show with his longtime road band, Dylan took a group of new players to the nonexistent Bon Bon Club in Marseille, France, and created a black-and-white dreamscape that wandered between a smoke-filled bar straight out of a 1940s film noir and a classic Hollywood Western saloon, complete with actors in period costumes.
Backed by a group of crack players that included bassist Janie Cowan and Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek, Dylan veered away from tunes he’s played to death during the past few years, opting for big surprises like “Queen Jane Approximately” (unplayed since 2013), “Pledging My Time” (unplayed since 1999), “The Wicked Messenger” (unplayed since 2009), and “What Was It You Wanted” (unplayed since 1995). After a very long break from the road, Dylan’s voice sounded better than it has in many years. The entire show was one jaw-dropping delight after another, and the only bummer was that it ended after just 50 minutes.
But now that we’ve had time to process it, we have a lot of questions.
1. Were the musicians playing live?
The members of Dylan’s five-piece Shadow Kingdom band — Alex Burke, Janie Cowan, Joshua Crumbly, Shahzad Ismaily, and Buck Meek — are all capable musicians, but sharp-eyed fans noticed that their hand movements didn’t always match the music we were hearing. There was also a moment when a Telecaster appeared to be unplugged. The odds are very high that much of the music was prerecorded, if not all of it. The same goes for Dylan’s vocals, which probably explains why a large microphone and well-placed shadows made it hard to see his lips move much of the time.
2. Where was this filmed?
The end credits thank the “Bon Bon Club in Marseille,” but there’s no way that Dylan and a large film crew schlepped over to France to film this thing in the midst of a pandemic. Besides, there’s no such club in Marseille. In all likelihood, this was a film set somewhere in California, dressed up to look like a midcentury saloon. The audience members were actors in period costumes, and one can only imagine the NDAs they signed before stepping foot onto that set.
3. What’s with the band?
Dylan has played with a lot of musicians since the Never Ending Tour launched in 1988. Bassist Tony Garnier has been with him since 1989 and Charlie Sexton’s tenure goes back to 1999. The others came on board in more recent years, with drummer Matt Chamberlain and guitarist Bob Britt being the two newbies. None of these people were anywhere in sight for this thing. There were a lot of surprises during the show, but the personnel was probably the biggest one.
4. What happened to Rough and Rowdy Ways?
When the show was announced in June, many fans thought it would be a chance to finally hear songs from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways in a live setting. The press release announced “songs from his extensive renowned body of work,” and Dylan shows always feature a great number of songs from his newest LP. But the show began with the words “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.” We’re not quite show how the Oh Mercy deep cut “What Was It You Wanted” qualifies, but the rest of the songs were indeed from the Sixties and early Seventies. Might there be a second show that spotlights “The Later Songs of Bob Dylan”? We have no idea.
5. What happens to this show now?
The show was released through Veeps, and fans who forked over $25 received access to it for 48 hours. What happens to it after that? Does it turn to dust and exist only in bootleg form? Will it be sold as a download? Will there be a soundtrack? Might Dylan be working on an album that presents his older songs in this format? Once again, we have absolutely no clue.
6. What does this mean for the Never Ending Tour?
Dylan hasn’t played a traditional concert since December 8th, 2019, at the Anthem in Washington, D.C. The pandemic forced him to cancel all of his 2020 dates, and he has yet to announce any future shows. He might be a little hesitant to book indoor theaters for his traditional fall U.S. tour thanks to the Delta variant that is causing Covid infection spikes all over the world, but it will eventually be safe for him to get back to work. Will he use any of these musicians? Will he go back to the most recent incarnation of his Never Ending Tour band? Will he work in some of these songs in the place of worn-out tunes like “Honest With Me” and “Things Have Changed”? As we’ve said here many times, we simply have no clue. Like with so many things in Dylan World, we just have to wait and see.