ROCK / In the depths: Bob Dylan

WE'VE all heard the stories about Bob Dylan's cussedness - how he'll stop songs half-way, twist them out of recognisable shape, maybe play nothing you've ever heard. But what's impressive is, he'll never let you down the same way twice. Take the first night of his week-long run in Hammersmith - compellingly awful, resourcefully rubbishy. Just when you're thinking he couldn't care less, he digs down deep and finds some new way not to care.

In the stalls, it was wall-to-wall Dylanologists, block-booked into the best seats. Often depicted as humourlessly in thrall to a set notion of Dylan's greatness, the Bob-spotters are in fact more fun than that; Dylan's moments of 24 carat direness are to be collected and discussed as avidly as those rare nights when he really sparks off. With that in mind, everyone was on their feet when the lights went down and a voice asked us to welcome 'Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan'.

The first thing that happened was almost too collectible to be true. For some reason Dylan's microphone stand had only been partially erected and was at waist- height. As the band tumbled into the opening bars of 'Maggie's Farm', Dylan sauntered forward and wrestled the stand to a viable singing position. But before he could get a word out, the stand plummeted again, sending an almighty clunk through the PA. Dylan retreated, glowering, while a roadie scampered on and fixed the mess. The familiar Dylan comedy of despair and disdain was already under way, and he hadn't even started singing yet.

When he did, his voice was a bleary honk. He strained his way through 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right', 'Tangled Up in Blue', and most of the time, he sounded like someone fooling around in the bath. At the end, you were clapping your memory of the original, or clapping Dylan for writing it - clapping anything, frankly, other than the truly horrible rendition which had just gone by.

In the audience, there was some tutting about Dylan's choice of band members. Two of them were wearing cowboy hats (Tony Garnier on bass and Williams Baxter on slide guitar) while the guitarist Johnny Jackson was apeing Eric Clapton in an expensive, flowing suit. It was the lot of Ian Wallace to drum along with Dylan's unpredictable changes of pace and volume.

Dylan himself played an acoustic until near the concert's end. He seemed to be using a thumb- pick early on (hard to know why; he doesn't usually), and later he abandoned it in favour of his own thumb. Solos were frequent and lengthy, some sweetly tuneful, but most a mess of thumping, plinking and buzzing, often in the wrong keys. Each number dragged on for ages. On at least two occasions, the applause at the end of a song died down and you realised that the number was, in fact, still going on. Dylan did thaw a little, managing a bow before he lurched off behind the amplifiers, hitching up his trousers.

Behind him lay some of songwriting's finest moments, deftly trashed; 'The Times They Are A-Changin' ' in which the punch line had been sung an octave lower than the rest of the song; 'Tambourine Man', wherein the chorus melody went up, instead of down. The audience left bright-eyed and animated. It had been a night to remember.