Review: Bob Dylan: He’s 80, he’s livestreaming and he still loves messing with us

A black-and-white photo of a man in a white jacket at a microphone holding a guitar
Bob Dylan’s “Shadow Kingdom,” featuring 13 songs, was billed not as a concert but as a “broadcast event.”

Maybe he’ll do TikTok next.

When Bob Dylan revealed last month that his first public performance since late 2019 would take place on the livestreaming platform Veeps, the announcement felt like an inevitable concession to late-COVID reality for a typically hard-touring musician who recently turned 80.

But a sad little compromise is not at all what Dylan presented in “Shadow Kingdom,” which premiered Sunday afternoon (with tickets priced at $25) and will be available for replay on demand until Tuesday night.

The 50-minute “broadcast event,” as the singer’s team billed it, was more a carefully directed art film than a live gig with a camera replacing an audience. Shot in lush black and white, with multiple setups and costume changes, the show had Dylan performing 13 songs in a ramshackle roadhouse-like setting — checkerboard floor, busted Venetian blinds, a wall-unit A/C blowing reflective streamers — while backed by a small, drumless band of face-masked musicians on various stringed instruments.

Were those players — among them Buck Meek of Big Thief and the well-traveled sideman Shahzad Ismaily — actually playing as we watched? In keeping with Dylan’s longstanding trickster’s reputation, it wasn’t clear: Often their hands appeared out of sync with the music, as though they were miming to prerecorded tracks. The same may have been true of the singer himself, whose mouth was usually obscured behind an old-fashioned crooner’s microphone. For several songs, the roadhouse filled up with a crowd of smokers and drinkers, and when they applauded you couldn’t hear them, which made you wonder if that microphone was even on.

Twitter can’t agree on whether Bruce Springsteen sings ‘waves’ or ‘sways’ on his 1975 classic, ‘Thunder Road.’ Turns out, Springsteen isn’t sure either.

July 15, 2021


But such concerns seem beside the point of the very “Twin Peaks”-ish “Shadow Kingdom,” which played to the strengths of its streaming-video format to create an eerie cinematic vibe instead of seeking to duplicate the feeling of being at a concert. (On Instagram, Meek wrote that he’d “made a movie with Bob Dylan.”)

As promised by an introductory title card, the set list drew on Dylan’s early material — tunes from the 1960s and ’70s such as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Watching the River Flow” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” — though he also sang “What Was It You Wanted,” from 1989’s “Oh Mercy” album. He didn’t do anything from his most recent LP, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which earned rave reviews when it came out in June 2020.

Even so, the old songs’ vivid new arrangements, long on mandolin and accordion and bowed acoustic bass, felt of a piece with “Rough and Rowdy’s” pulpy cabaret-noir sound. And Dylan’s cracked, gulpy singing voice was as crisp (and evidently well-rested) as it’s been in years — ideal for those Bobologists eager to catalog lyrical tweaks like the ones he made in “To Be Alone with You” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

For “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” which rode a rollicking folk-blues groove, Dylan stared down the camera with crinkly-eyed mischief as a pair of women stood silently on either side of him; “The Wicked Messenger” had trick closeups of an electric guitar that kept reminding you that the whole production had been choreographed in advance. (“Shadow Kingdom” was directed by Alma Har’el, who helmed 2019’s Shia LaBeouf-starring “Honey Boy.”)

Yet the most affecting moment may have been a relatively unadorned “Forever Young,” which Dylan sang with pleading tenderness, the band’s accompaniment gently cradling his words about growing up to be righteous and growing up to be true.