Rich Hall DVD recording

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Rich Hall has never been a man with a sense of occasion. The 3,300-seater Hammersmith Apollo may be one of the biggest solo gigs of his quarter-century-plus career, and this gig the recording of his first stand-up DVD, but he seems uncomfortable with all the trappings that entails.

He would, you imagine, rather be playing an unassuming club or – better yet – holding court among his drinking buddies in some seedy, dimly-lit bar. Not for nothing was the Simpsons’ brusque barkeeper Moe Szyslak based on Hall’s persona

His brand of grumpy comedy should be intimate and immediate, not preserved in the aspic of a video recording. So he makes no attempt at showmanship, but many deprecating comments about tonight’s situation, mocking the strange perspective on backdrop, making frequent, clumsy reference to that fact that most people who see this show will be doing so in months to come, and suggesting that a year from now his DVDs will be in a service station bargain bin, next to Best Of Jethro.

Such patter, and his semi-reluctant badinage with the front row, establishes the craggy-faced, craggy-voiced American’s authenticity, but it does mean there’s take some time until all the distractions of the night can be put behind him, and he can work towards building up a head of steam.

But once he gets going, all is right with the world. Or rather, it isn’t, given that Hall’s splenetic shtick depends on growling despairing complaints about the gloomily inevitable disappointments of human existence, succinctly and relentlessly. ‘I go where the misery is,’ he says of his decision to spend more than half his life in the UK, away from the forced cheeriness of the ‘have a nice day’ culture.

That British gloom is combined with the ruggedly down-to-earth attitude of his native rural Montana, which influences his comedy equally strongly; whether directly in his incredulous response to the danger of grizzly bears or his account of an unconventional prairie-dog pest control method, or more indirectly in his no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools rants.

Some of these are hits from his back catalogue, as you might expect from a debut DVD, whether it’s his cruelly accurate description of every Hollywood potboiler Tom Cruise has ever made, or unsophisticated late-night advertising and its near-evangelical commitment to speedy delivery. These are as funny as they are ruthlessly well-observed – and mixed with equally enyojabe newer material about America’s inconceivable multitrillion dollar debt and Barack Obama’s presidency. But just when his hackles are well and truly risen, it’s the end of the set, seeming to come far too quickly.

After the break, Hall returns as his perennial alter-ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw. Hall often seems more at ease in the guise of this hard-living country and western preacher as he is as himself. Every comedian, it’s said, secretly wants to be a music star, and jamming on a stage made out to look like a remote mid-western gas station, complete with broken-down truck and rusting tractor, as the burnt-amber sky steadily darkens, you can imagine Hall living out an old fantasy.

The music’s taken seriously, with guitarist, banjo-player, double-bassist and occasionally drummer, joining the apparently reformed recidivist for the mix of maudlin and jaunty melodies. Without the comedy element this would be a perfectly acceptable country outfit, so even if the chuckles do run dry, you can still tap your toes.

Some of the ballads are, indeed, lighter on laughs, the moody atmosphere of the more indulgent tracks only occasionally punctured with a great line, but always bookended with exquisite between-song banter. Others are heavier on the gags – the long-standing staple of his set Do Anything You Want To The Girl, Just Don’t Hurt Me or the love song to a bag lady.

As usual, he improvises a few verses around fans’ lives. As usual, he gets mixed results, which becomes a joke it itself. But it’s the big numbers that work best in the big space, such as the potentially actionable Fuck Disney. Whether getting a crowd to holler obscenities is strictly comedy is a moot point, but it’s undoubtedly a spirit-raiser – and come the DVD, music is traditionally more enduring than ephemeral old stand-up anyway.

Review date: 27 Sep 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Eventim Apollo

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