MANHATTAN, NY—Former House star Hugh Laurie proved he could handle a piano as skillfully as a stethoscope during his recent show at Manhattan’s Grand Ballroom.
Most people aren’t aware that if you strip away his two Golden Globes, two Screen Actor Guild Awards, two Television Critics Association Awards and six Emmy nominations for the role of Gregory House, M.D., that Laurie, tv’s highest-paid actor, is also an accomplished blues musician. Because Laurie knew this performance might involve a leap of faith for fans, he offered some advice.
“I want you to think of them as a Rolls Royce,” said Laurie, about his backing musicians, the Copper Bottom Band. “I am merely the silver-plated ornament that sits on the hood.” But the self-deprecating Laurie was much more than a decoration during this set supporting Let Them Talk, his first album on Warner Brothers. He was the heart of it. Despite his quip to, “Look at me, but listen to them,” it was impossible not to be awed by Laurie’s talents as a singer, pianist and guitarist. Renowned musicians Kevin Breit (guitars), Vincent Henry (horns), David Piltch (bass), Patrick Warren (keyboard/accordion), Jay Bellerose (drums), and Jean McClain (backing vocals) only made Laurie’s homage to New Orleans music all the more exciting.
Throughout the show, Laurie shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and artists he covered. After “St. James Infirmary,” he said, “It’s about—brace yourselves—a sailor who fucks a lot.” He also considered the mystique of Buddy Bolden before performing Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.”
“Buddy Bolden was judged by many to be one of the founding fathers of jazz,” said Laurie. “Even Louis Armstrong was said to find him something of a threat. The thing is there are no records, yet everyone agrees he was the greatest ever. Fucking brilliant. Hats off to him.”
Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band also performed “You Don’t Know My Mind,” “Battle Of Jericho,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Waiting For A Train,” Winin’ Boy Blues” and “Dear Old Southland.”
Besides learning about legends like Lead Belly, Allen Toussaint, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson, House fans discovered another thing about Laurie. He’s really funny. Many American audiences aren’t aware that before playing a misanthrope on a medical drama for eight seasons, Laurie was a successful comedian, starring in British tv shows like Blackadder, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, and Jeeves And Wooster. And Laurie’s stories were told with all the charm of his popular character Bertie Wooster. Before the band’s rousing cover of “Swanee River,” a highlight of the night, Laurie described why the song was dear to him.
“When I was a young lad I briefly had proper piano lessons,” said Laurie. “It didn’t last very long. To be frank, I hated my teacher who was very strict. It was all about posture for her…She pushed me through this book that’s deliberately written to make children hate music for the rest of their lives… It’s full of these absolutely hellish songs. French lullabies and German comic songs like ‘The Doberman’ and ‘The Bunny Rabbit.’ But there was one song that, to me, stood out like an oasis in the musical desert, and it’s the reason I hung in for as long as I did. So we crawled our way across the baking sands and past the bleached bones of children fallen by the wayside. Finally the day came where we arrived at the oasis. Page 26. She turned the page and she read the top and she said, ‘Swanee River. Negro spiritual. Slightly syncopated. I think we’ll leave that one.’ So I killed her.”
Laurie later explained how Professor Longhair “pretty much with one note changed everything for all the piano players who followed,” before performing his soulful rendition of “Tipitina.” And for audience members who needed help figuring out how to dance to “Green Green Rocky Road,” Laurie demonstrated some hilarious possibilities.
Laurie’s genuine love for the genre shined through this tribute. He eagerly shared his interpretations with humor and hospitality, a far cry from the cantankerous bedside manner of House.