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 …