You didn't expect Bob Dylan's first streamed concert to be like any other act's, did you?
"Shadow Kingdom" — which premiered Sunday afternoon, of all times — is an intimate, artful performance, filmed in black-and-white in a tiny, smokey club. The musicians wore COVID masks (except for Dylan) and the audience members did not because they were actors, who were smoking, drinking and occasionally dancing.
This wasn't a livestream. That's not Dylan. Billed as "an exclusive broadcast event," these meticulously staged performances were recorded in two or three different settings, with the singer wearing a few different outfits. Some numbers were even delivered without an audience.
During "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," two women stood next to the bard as he sang. One of them even brushed some imaginary lint off his shoulder in the middle of this bluesy roadhouse shuffle, and he didn't seem to notice.
With ambivalent clubgoers in vintage outfits blowing smoke rings, the scene — a wood-paneled bar decorated with streamers and paper chains — exuded a distinctive "Twin Peaks" vibe. With Dylan's face in shadows but his curly mullet back lit, the impeccable lighting enhanced the mood.
For a change at a Dylan concert, every listener could identify every song because the titles were superimposed on the screen at the beginning (except for the opening "When I Paint My Masterpiece").
And, unlike at an in-person Dylan concert, listeners could understand every lyric (even though he changed some of them). His diction was as clear as it has ever been this century. He seemed very engaged, though not as committed or passionate as in recent performances in Minnesota.
At times, it felt as if Dylan were reciting poetry over a drummer-less band creating an impressionistic backdrop. All new to Dylan's stage, the players — guitarist Alex Burke, accordionist Shahzad Ismaily, bassists Janie Cowan and Joshua Crumbly, and guitarist Buck Meek of Big Thief — were mostly in an acoustic mode, save for Meek's electric guitar. The singer himself strummed guitar on a few numbers and occasionally played harmonica. The piano onstage was not used.
Musically, "Shadow Kingdom" focused on "The Early Songs of Bob Dylan," as the closing credits explained. The repertoire appealed to both casual and hard-core fans. There were plenty of old favorites — including a gently rippling "Watching the River Flow" and a reassuring "Forever Young" — as well as the more obscure "The Wicked Messenger" from 1967 and "What Was It You Wanted" from 1989, the most recent selection in the set.
Unfortunately, there was nothing from last year's excellent "Rough and Rowdy Ways," Dylan's surprise pandemic gift and his first album of original material in eight years.
There was nothing rough or rowdy about "Shadow Kingdom." Dylan was mostly a commanding balladeer, making "Pledging My Time" slow and seductive and interpreting "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" like a standard from the Great American Songbook. Even his harmonica was contemplative, especially on "Queen Jane Approximately."
In his first stage appearance since Dec. 8, 2019, the Minnesota native delivered 13 songs in less than 50 minutes. Does the intimate, artful performance with a clear voice make up for the short duration? To true Dylan fans, the answer is yes.
"Shadow Kingdom" can be viewed until 11:59 p.m. Pacific on Tuesday at bobdylan.veeps.com for $25 plus fees.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719