fri 19/07/2024

Bill Bailey: Thoughtifier, Brighton Centre review - offbeat adventures with a whirling, erudite mind | reviews, news & interviews

Bill Bailey: Thoughtifier, Brighton Centre review - offbeat adventures with a whirling, erudite mind

Bill Bailey: Thoughtifier, Brighton Centre review - offbeat adventures with a whirling, erudite mind

Bailey's fusion of studied musicality and off-the-wall wordplay remains one-of-a-kind

The world accordion to Bill Bailey

I first saw Bill Bailey at least 30 years ago in the cabaret tent at Glastonbury Festival, the audience lying on hessian matting, a fug of hash smoke in the air. He seemed one of us, a bug-eyed, Tolkien-prog hippy with a stoned sense of humour and charged musical chops.

A lot of water under the bridge since then. Animal rights champion. Won Strictly Come Dancing. Mellow middle-of-the road chat-show regular. Cuddly national treasure status approaching. Even recently told The Guardian he’d forgiven Bryan Adams his multiple musical atrocities. No way, dude. No way. And yet, and yet… at 59-years-old, a Tolkien-prog hippy he remains.

Indeed, like the prog rockers of old, as he’s become more successful, he’s invested in increasingly complex and futuristic kit and presentation. The stage contains a grand piano, multiple synths and electric guitars, as well as other instrumentation. During the show we’ll be introduced to electronic “drum balls” and a laser harp. He also makes full use of the giant screen backdrop. When not in active use, it portrays the English countryside slowly overrun with grey industrial structures and cables. But it comes to life regularly to enrich gags, such as providing crass subtitles for an enjoyably deadpan French chanson entitled “The Ballad of the Crow and the Child”.

Bailey is clad in black, wearing a cowboy-style shirt with red flowers on the shoulders. His new show freewheels between apparently spontaneous audience interaction and carefully prepped segments. Some, such as a long sequence based around the relevance in popular music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, are dense and educational. Upon occasion, a classical soprano, Florence Hvorostovsky, joins him to add further musical chops, wryly adding a splash of classily sexy cabaret to proceedings, especially on a fabulously depressive, Weimar-ish minor key rendering of “Happy Birthday” (“Another meaningless milestone of decay”!).

The show tonight has a number of minor glitches - props missing, keyboards on the wrong setting, instruments not plugged in properly, etc - which entail many appearances by a roadie. Bailey turns this into a pantomime routine (“He’s behind you”). His speeding mind and your-stoned-mate wordplay are his greatest asset, revelling in the moment. Naturally he skewers the Tories, a deluge of literate insults, my favourite being Rishi Sunak referred to as a “poorly rendered AI cardigan”. Exquisitely wrought throwaway lines are everywhere: he observes of people who go fishing, “Catching fish is like pranking Jedward with a laser pen”.

Despite its lively fun, there’s also a sense that the evening never quite achieves full lift-off. There are the aforementioned glitches. It seems Bailey may also be suffering from a nasty cold (he hides it well). He certainly, especially in the first half, isn’t receiving the energy he needs from the audience, calling us “an audience-o-gram to freak out the hippy”. It is an older crowd. Going to endless gigs, to generalise wildly, I notice that younger or mixed younger/older crowds attend events to be part of something, to join a communal happening, to take part, whereas older audiences go to watch, to be entertained. There’s a bit of this here. Not terribly so, but a bit, and Bailey feels it because his brain is freewheeling ahead chaotically at 170 MPH and he expects everyone to keep up.

One moment he wants us to sing along to his acoustic version of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, the next he’s attempting to build crowd interaction around his interest in nuclear fission and fusion. The vibe tonight doesn’t reach the heights I’ve seen him reach in the past, but on a dismal, rainy night on the south coast, he injects enough madcap joy into the room. Whether mocking the idea of his possibly appearing on Love Island, alongside “a pencil influencer”, or attacking Coldplay songs on a Turkish lute, his schtick is contagious. As the lights go up, after the short encore, and as people are leaving, he wanders the stage for a bit playing the bagpipes. For no particular reason. The mad old hippy.

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