A full two minutes into "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" – maybe it's sometime around that line about "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" – a sudden cheer spreads through the auditorium. They've just realised which song he's singing.
It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, and it takes a goddam forensic linguist to decipher Bob Dylan's vocals on the Love And Theft tour. One of the curses – or, if you have the patience and temperament, one of the blessings – of being a Dylan fan is that every show is the Spanish Inquisition in reverse: you always expect the unexpected. Which Bob Dylan will show up tonight? The one who'll rattle irascibly through the new album and refuse all requests for familiarity? The one who'll play the cabaret entertainer and trot out his stadium-friendly hits? The one who's decided it's about time we were educated in the history of obscure Appalachian lullabies? Tonight, we get all three, in one stick-thin, Stetson-topped figure: stadium hits, sung irascibly, Appalachian-style. Whether or not Bob Dylan wants to be performing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in 2002 is highly debatable, and if he's obliged – contractually, morally or otherwise – to do so,he's going to sing them in a manner which frequently makes them recognisable only by reference to their dental records. Syllables are elided, words mangled, sentences slurred. The cadences, too, are eccentric, every line delivered in a machine-gun monotone, rising a fifth on the last syllable, as though he's about to start yodelling.
Dylan's greatest album, Blonde On Blonde, was recorded in Nashville with a scratch band of country musicians, single-handedly opening the gates for the whole country-rock genre. Tonight, with a burgundy-suited band of long-serving sidekicks (Charlie Sexton, Jim Keltner, Larry Campbell), he drags that material back through history, beyond Nashville, beyond rock'n'roll itself, to its roots in Kentucky bluegrass (a journey hinted at on his latest album, Love And Theft).
Many once-familiar songs are rendered unfamiliar by the transposition to barbershop harmonies and upright bass skiffle rhythms, as well as by his even-more-bizarre-than-usual diction. Maybe, as a middle-aged man, Dylan no longer feels comfortable singing "Jeez, I can't find my knees!" in "Visions Of Johanna", but a line like "The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face" is one of which no one should be ashamed.
Then again, I've always loathed "Blowing In The Wind", a song which effectively shrugs its shoulders and says "Crazy old world. What can you do, eh?", and I'm secretly glad that its new format precludes a singalong. As a protest singer, Dylan has always been overrated. And his influence in this regard was pernicious, convincing a generation of hippies – unable to distinguish form from performer, unable to see that Dylan was a shining exemplar who would have excelled in almost any field, unable to see that strumming and bloody harmonicas were not the point – to keep the neck-brace industry alive for years to come.
Just once tonight, one of his declamatory anthems escapes its context and cuts through the decades. "There are still parts of Wales," wrote Gwyn Thomas, "where the only concession to gaiety is a striped shroud", and as a striped curtain falls behind Bob for "Masters Of War", the International Arena is a gaiety desert. A still chilling j'accuse to the military-industrial complex, it's as relevant at this moment as... (well, can you name even a fortnight in the past 40 years when it has not been?).
Dylan's finest work, however, has always been about the individual, not the communal; vitriol and hate, not love and peace; written from inside a solipsist's superiority-complex, and often fuelled by personal bitterness and misogynistic spite. Three of his most famous songs form what I consider to be a vindictive triptych. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is omitted tonight, but when he sings "Positively Fourth Street", even without Al Kooper's Hammond organ, if I had hairs on the back of my neck, they would be erect. When 3,000 devotees sing "Like A Rolling Stone" for him, he adds a sing-song, playground nah-nah nah nah-nah to onomatopoeically echo the almost childish nastiness of the lyric.
Of course, there is also a less harmful, more romantic strain to Dylan's Delphic, cryptic Poetry Of The Self, represented by "Tangled Up In Blue", his ever popular tale of freewheeling, love 'em and leave 'em youth, and the Ginsbergian beat poetry of "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again". As a child, my father promised me that I'd understand Dylan one day, and at the time I refused to believe it, unable to comprehend that this Biblically-bearded figure was actually writing young man's music. Standing next to him tonight, I tell him he was right. Watching an old man singing a young man's words may seem wrong, but ask yourself this: would you have attended an audience with the elderly Dali, Beckett or Milligan? I thought so.
At last, a crowd-pleaser. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is performed (relatively) straight, its shambolic Mardi Gras marching band rhythm reminiscent of the Kia-Ora crow, causing mass chanting of "everybody must get stoned". After two hours, he ends with "All Along The Watchtower", then, without saying so much as "goodnight", he nods enigmatically, blows a kiss, points one boney finger at us, and he's away.
Just when you thought The Scandipop Boom – The Hives, Kings Of Convenience, Royksopp, International Noise Conspiracy, etc etc – seemed to be a bottomless barrel, comes the ominous sound of scraping. Don't blame the excellent girlpunk foursome Sahara Hotnights (all stiletto-sharp Old Metal riffing and God-this-is-killing-me expressions), blame the headline act, the mystifyingly revered Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Courted by the Gallagher brothers and responsible for Life of Brian-style messiah scenes wherever they go, SOOL are a kitschy psychedelic revival act fronted by a big, bearded, be-kaftanned bloke who looks like Jim Morrison in that Paris bathtub. While his band cluelessly rip off the Stones, the Carpenters, but mainly the bloody Doors, Beard Bloke makes wacky, zany "love and peace" pronouncements and goes walkabout. Life's too short for joke bands, and too short for a soundtrack like this. What's Swedish for Doctor And The Medics?
Bob Dylan: London Arena (020 7538 1212), tonight. Soundtrack Of Our Lives/Sahara Hotnights: Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth (023 9286 3911), tonight; Concorde 2, Brighton (01273 297241), Tue; Soundhaus, Northampton, (01604 250898), Wed