Review: Bill Bailey at First Direct Arena, Leeds

Bill Bailey. Picture: Andy Hollingworth
Bill Bailey. Picture: Andy Hollingworth
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“Now this,” Bill Bailey tells “Leeds and the surrounding areas” at the First Direct Arena, “is a jazz button.” He points to the floor in front of him. “With a tap of my foot, I can turn this into a 30s jazz club, in an emergency,” he deadpans before entirely corpsing.

No less than five minutes later, a full-blown interlude is underway, complete with mood lighting, as he wrestles with a repeat malfunction involving his water bottle and the quietest stage invasion in history, committed by a persistent moth, his absurdist opening remarks joyfully derailed. At one point in between these mishaps, he accidentally triggers a further switch that launches the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive at megawatt volume; his swivel-eyed statesman response holds for a moment before he cracks up again.

Bailey’s rambling stream-of-consciousness approach to stand-up has always been an intriguing, rib-tickling window into the mind of a surrealist comedian and musician; a intellectual renaissance man in the guise of, in his own words, “a poundshop Gandalf”.

The Somerset-born star (“I don’t have a West Country accent anymore because I wanted to get on in life,” he quips) is as adept at one as he is at the other – a monologue on how the imitations of rappers by West London youth could lead to chaos at the deli cheese counter is as inspired as a bourbon-blues, meet-the-devil number played on a makeshift guitar fashioned from a Bible – but, off-piste flights of unexpected fancy aside, he soars best when melding the two together, be it a treatise on loon bird cry samples in popular music or a sketch where he sets the speeches of Theresa May to pulse-pounding dancefloor beats.

The second half leans more on the tunes than the outright gags, but Bailey’s sheer proficiency at virtually every instrument he touches makes for sheer delight, from a concave steel pan and pedal bin to the more conventional Gibson SG, on which he riffs death metal narration of mundane life and unseasonal Christmas carols.

An attempt to corral a rendition of You Are My Sunshine in both German and the minor-key is a wonderfully ragged mess; an encore of his one-man cowbell orchestra is a work of Pythonesque genius.

It ends with Bailey playing himself off, shredding away to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell; a fitting arena-gig finale for a genial madcap as much a rock star as he is a funnyman.