Thursday, November 30, 2023

Album Review: Bob Dylan - Shadow Kingdom

Bob Dylan 
Shadow Kingdom
**** out of *****

For the unaware, Bob Dylan has been on his Never Ending Tour since 1988, having logged more live shows than most artists half his age. Playing approximately 100 shows a year, the legendary Bard has managed to keep his amazing back-catalog fresh to fans by reinventing them onstage with new melody's rhythms and lyrics each tour. 

When the Covid pandemic closed it all down, Bob went dark, not playing anywhere, or doing any live his fans thought. It was announced that he would present a streaming event titled Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. Rabid Dylan disciples (RtBE included) salivated over this and loved being able to see it during those dark days; it was one of our favorite streams of 2021.

Now comes out the real story, those young musicians in fancy French locales playing Dylan's songs live?  Not the case. It turns out that Bob booked some studio time in LA and recorded with long time friends (including T-Bone Burnett and Don Was) and studio musicians to produce an album of a few of his older songs in laid back fashion, without drums. The film by Alma Har'el was released for downloading right after it premiered in 2021, Shadow Kingdom as a standalone album was not released until 2023. 

While it technically is his first album of studio recordings (maybe live recordings?) since the underwhelming Rough and Rowdy Ways, it is much less of an event as some of these songs are almost sixty years old. That said, their unique presentation here feels more like a second coming of Dylan's Unplugged sessions from back in 1995.

It feels like a live album as the musicians, (Bob Dylan – vocals, guitar, harmonica, Jeff Taylor – accordion, Greg Leisz – guitar, pedal steel guitar, mandolin, Tim Pierce – guitar, T-Bone Burnett – guitar, Ira Ingber – guitar, Don Was – upright bass, John Avila – electric bass, Doug Lacy – accordion, Steve Bartek – additional acoustic guitar) seem to be working out these arraignments of classic tunes on the fly.  

There is a ramshackle feeling to some of the songs, specifically, "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine", the slower "Queen Jane Approximately" and the wobbly version of "The Wicked Messenger" which is pretty cool, almost falling off the rails. This feels lower stakes for Bob, as if he just recorded a concert/rehearsal session. Nothing earth shattering, but lots of things to love, including new lyrics on many efforts including "When I Paint My Masterpiece", "To Be Alone with You" and "Watching the River Flow". 

Not everything works well, the slowed, drawn out "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is a slog, and the reworking of "Tombstone Blues" in slower, softer fashion is a complete miss. The absence is drums is not felt that often, but giving both of these songs some percussion would have definitely improved things. 

That said, this is a spry 80 year old, looking back at his tunes (as he does every tour) and breathing new life into them in various ways. That alone is enough to sing it's praises, but when things go correctly, like on the revving "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", the chugging "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" which uses great pedal steel work, or the off the cuff feeling of "Pledging My Time" which deploys dynamite harmonica, the songs and musicians should be applauded. 
A cool addition to the Bard's catalog, Shadow Kingdom is an intriguing listen from start to finish. 
Support the artist, buy the album, peep some video below:

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