Review: Bill Bailey — En Route to Normal

Utilita Arena Newcastle, 20 December 2021

Not quite normal … yet

It’s five days before Christmas, and you’d hope that Bill Bailey would be in a festive mood. Except he isn’t, not quite. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very pleased to be be in front of a proper audience again. And it’s a pretty full room tonight, in spite of the ongoing concern and confusion over restrictions, and the queues to get in.

After over a year of the hell of Zoom gigs, he’s very happy to see us. But even though you’d hardly call him a trenchant satirist, like Mark Thomas (to pick a name out of the hat), he’s really not happy with the Government. He has little but disdain for Gove, Hancock. and Raab, and their blithering ilk, but settles plenty of scorn on the head of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose Victorian countenance he describes as having absolutely no human warmth whatsoever, exuding an almost supernatural froideur. It means at all these government parties … sorry, business meetings, they tend to stand him away from everyone, near the buffet - to keep the prawns from going off. But the most withering contempt is saved for the “leader” of the kakistocratic cavalcade, the Prime Minister, who is described both as being like the Milky Bar Kid after a 40-year coke habit, and most memorably of all as Prince Joffrey crossed with Shrek, “… but not in a bad way” (this becomes a bit of a catchphrase in the first half of the show). He thinks there’s a lot of piss-taking going on, and we are the brunt of the joke. As one might expect, there’s not a lot of love for them in the room, and a lot of assent. But once he’s got some of that out of his system, he starts to talk about more cheerful stuff, and we’re more than happy to go with that.

He talks about being fortunate to have been able to travel more than most in the recent period, and what the rest of the world has looked like, from New Zealand, who can do quarantines properly(but seemingly not without Big Steve’s devious breakfast Muffin Scam), to the US, to Amsterdam. His love for the Dutch even survives encounters with Dutch weirdoes and their upbraiding of the “uptight” English.

He talks about being involved with Polynesian Tree Snails being reintroduced into their natural habitat after French colonists brought their own snails into the ecosystem for food. Predictably now, perhaps, they overran the poor little tree snails. So the French had a masterplan: they introduced African attack snails to consume the French ones. Which went as well as you might imagine, because they much preferred the smaller tastier Polynesian ones. They weren’t quite wiped out and after captive breeding programmes, and now are being gradually reintroduced back into their home.

He also talks about the aftermath of the Spanish Flu, and the cultural change it brought with it, heralding an explosion of excitement and creativitity, including the rise of ragtime and jazz. He muses whether it may happen again in a similar way this time around. But if it did, could the modern world work with ragtime? He starts off by playing Maple Leaf Rag, a tune he loves, perfectly straight, but then starts to consider what modern songs sound like in a ragtime style, like Ace of Spades. The answer to that is that it’s a banger! He asks the audience if they have any ideas for ones that might work. And this being Newcastle, they don’t disappoint: Back in Black, Enter Sandman (of which more later) and Smells Like Teen Spirit all sound great.

He rounds off the first half by paying tribute to his late friend, Sean Lock, and sings a “prog” song called Leg of Time that he and Sean wrote as a part of a musical, starring the two of them as a wasted old prog rocker and his roadie. And while it’s funny, it’s also kind of poignant. Even (maybe even especially) the Cockney middle section.

The second half starts with him talking about his time on Strictly, and the downsides of becoming “primetime” famous. You become much less able to live “under the radar” than you could before, and you also run into the problem of actually starting to meet the people who you’ve routinely been taking the piss out of, including Chris Martin. And Gwynneth.

The music is woven through out the whole show as usual, as you might expect, but the second half has more of it. So if you want to hear Coldplay’s Yellow, done Turkish style (a massive improvement), or what the possible Eurovision entry he’s considered might sound like (DO IT!), then step right up. A riff about bands having to rethink markets for lockdown, and diversify their material for kids has brilliant versions of first The Wheels on the Bus, by Kraftwerk, followed by Rammstein’s Remember You’re A Womble. I want both these versions, NOW!

Then, following a Irish reel (complete with looping, “Eat that, Ed Sheeran!”), he throws down some proper flamenco chops, including the famous “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” aria from Carmen (with proper operatic accompaniment), and a German cabaret Happy Birthday, before finishing off with the favourite handbells, and the antique car horn version of Enter Sandman.

This is the first time I’ve seen Bill since 2015, on the Limboland tour, and he manages the lovely trick of managing to be constantly the same, but constantly different. Musically especially, it’s incredibly eclectic, though you know he’s always going to take the chance to go metal on our sorry asses. In many ways he makes me think that this is what Mike Harding would have been like if he’d listened to Black Sabbath growing up¹. You know that lots of this stuff is very tightly constructed, and artfully written, but he manages to maintain the illusion of being slightly rambling and discursive when he performs, especially when he’s riffing off an audience. It gives him a very specific kind of spontaneous warmth that’s hard to pin down or copy. All of this means it’s a lovely warm hug of a gig for a cold December, and it’s great to be on the route back to normal with him.

¹ This is very much a compliment. Mike Harding was a hugely formative influence on the comedy I liked when I was growing up. And I still like to listen to some of that stuff even now.

A man shouting at passers-by on teh Interwebz

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Darren Stephens

Darren Stephens

A northern man

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