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review// Bill Bailey ‘Qualmpeddler Tour’ – Live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 21st October 2013
words // Craig Hardy

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The charismatic, enigmatic and chaotic comedian brings his latest outing of stand-up, storytelling and musical hi-jinks to the Corn Exchange for an unforgettable night.

Going in to this show I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Bill Bailey. Sure, most people know him from the various late night panel shows of which he is a regular guest, but his stand-up performances are usually something quite different indeed.

The last of these shows I saw was 2008’s ‘Tinselworm’, recorded live at Wembley Arena, and I wasn’t too impressed with the way that Bailey was starting to steer his comedic styling further towards the absurd and away from the satire and quick-wit that first led me to enjoy him – more of a one-man Mighty Boosh, just lacking in a little colourful whimsy to fully deliver the crucial knockout blows when they counted.

The same could certainly not be said about his performance at the Corn Exchange. This was Bailey back on top form and playing to a packed out, if slightly stand-offish and reserved crowd – something of a common thing when it comes to live comedy in Cambridge. This was something that Bailey himself used to great effect throughout the evening; almost immediately having the most stoic audience members clapping along and joining in with the frantic fun provided by the wild-eyed and even wilder haired comic.

The crowd itself was extremely diverse – with audience members ranging from older folks who undoubtedly know Bailey from his runs on QI and the like, to typical student types and a fair share of long-haired metalheads, ready to rock out when Bailey took to his Gibson SG and broke into educating the crowd with the rules on how to deliver a successful death metal song (something, it turns out, is hard yet hilarious to do in both Welsh and West Country accents).

With material that was always razor sharp and on point, and ranging from political satire to the downright absurd – see Bill’s story of visiting China and bartering for the safe release of a soon-to-be eaten owl from a local restaurant in the dead of night, alongside no-one but his son and a confused local taxi driver – there was something for everyone to enjoy. No-one and nothing was safe from Bailey’s quick wit as he poked fun at the ‘social media’ generation – providing clever and more practical uses for life’s most common acronyms – and even took shots at his former presenting gig on Never Mind The Buzzcocks; a slight hint of bitterness in his sharp tongue-lashings towards the BBC2 pop quiz.

The typical abundance of musical genius was also on show this evening, with Bailey taking to multiple instruments alongside an ever changing and entertaining visual backdrop to provide such treats as ‘Nun-Step’ – Bill’s guide to how ominous and off-putting church organ music can sound so much more inviting when set to a dubstep beat – various, hilarious takes on the Match of the Day theme song, proving that the track can take on a mantle of different meanings just through key changes and slight tweaks to the tempo, and even an encore of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, in which the cosmic-comic took to an array of horns much like a seal at a circus, to blast out the main riff – leaving the Corn Exchange rocking in their seats.

It’s this kind of diversity that made the show so enjoyable this evening – the effortless pace at which Bailey flowed between topics was mind-blowing; keeping his stories tight and precise, but allowing both himself and the audience to have a little fun with the material. There was never a chance to get bored, or to fall into the trap of being suckered in by too many songs about absurdist topics, which I’ve found to be a problem with some of Bailey’s material in the past.

Gathering an instant sense for the room, Bailey was a maestro tonight – a ringleader from the moment he energetically stepped onto the stage to the moment that he concluded his third encore; leaving the crowd were still ready for more. He knew exactly how to deliver to his audience in exactly the right way, and through this sense kept the whole room laughing and happy until the lights came back up. Sure, Cambridge audiences may not be great at participating with what’s going on, on stage at times, but tonight this wasn’t even a factor – I would defy anyone who attended this show not to be entirely captivated by the whirling mastermind that is Bill Bailey and I know that the next time he comes to town, I won’t have any doubts in my mind about booking front row yet again.

Bravo, Bill Bailey. Bravo.