MANHATTAN, NY—Hugh Laurie may have a lot going for him as a two-time Golden Globe winner and six-time Emmy nominee, whose role as Dr. Gregory House on Fox’s hit series House made him one of TV’s top paid actors, but the Cambridge-educated Brit has a good reason to sing the blues. He loves the genre.
When the 54-year-old comic/actor/musician took the stage at Town Hall to support his second album, Didn’t It Rain, he didn’t look like a classic New Orleans blues figure, but he was an authentic one, particularly if you share his view of the music.
“I would hate this music to be put in a sociological category of American folk music that only has meaning because of the experience and the period from which it grew,” said Laurie in a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. “I think of this music as high art.”
In fact, Laurie told the Town Hall audience that he considers jazz music to be “America’s greatest gift to the world.”
“It is without equal in importance to the enhancement of life and feeling and emotion and love and joy,” said Laurie. “…Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the only thing you’ve done. I know that. Going to the moon. Fantastic. Martinis. Fucking excellent. It’s a long long list, but at the top of that list, is this music, which to me is more beautiful than even language.”
With reverence and the seven-piece Copper Bottom band, Laurie masterfully riffed on the piano and guitar as he sang songs that originated in the Mississippi Delta. Some critics say his American accent makes him sound like he’s playing a role. They’re clearly not listening carefully enough. If New Orleans-style jazz is meant to turn a somber situation into a celebration, forcing anyone with a pulse to be happy to be alive, then Laurie delivered. His self-deprecating humor also revealed how he takes the music more seriously than himself.
“You may be wondering what kind of idiot would try to sing after that,” said Laurie following vocalist Sister Jean McClain’s charged rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair.” “Not only am I an idiot to sing after Jean McClain. I’m a double idiot because the song I’m going to do was made famous by the most famous singer who walked the planet (Elvis Presley). This is double madness. I’m hoping they’ll cancel each other out,” he added before launching into “Mystery Train.”
As Laurie paused before singing Dr. John “Mac” Rebennack’s “Wild Honey,” fans made him smile by shouting requests like “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “Mystery,” songs that showcased Laurie’s musicality and comic genius in British TV shows like Jeeves And Wooster and A Bit Of Fry & Laurie.
The crowd was also treated to a quirky tango dance between Laurie and singer Gaby Moreno during their steamy duet, “Kiss Of Fire.” And Laurie even offered a cautionary tale about buying items on eBay, a reference to the tiny Charles Darwin statue sitting on his piano.
“I understood Charles Darwin would be that size,” said Laurie gesturing wildly. “The person who took the picture must have had very tiny hands.”
Between jokes, moments were soulful and stirring, with Laurie showcasing his accomplished band comprised of David Piltch (bass), Vincent Henry (horns), Elizabeth Lea (trombone), Herman Matthews (drums), Mark Goldenberg (guitars), McLain (vocals), who dug into Jelly Roll Morton’s “I Hate A Man Like You,” and Moreno (vocals) with her sultry delivery of “The Weed Smoker’s Dream.” The women also joined for a rousing rendition of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” with Laurie on piano. The men had their turn at the mic too, joining Laurie with his guitar strapped on, for a breezy four-part harmony on “Lazy River.”
Other songs covered included “Iko Iko” (Dixie Cups), “Let The Good Times Roll” (Shirley & Lee), “Green Green Rocky Road” (Billy Taylor), “Changes,” “You Don’t Know My Mind” (Lead Belly) and “Careless Love,” by Willie “Drive ‘Em Down” Hall.
“Not much is known other than the fact that he’s got a fantastic name,” said Laurie introducing Willie Drive ‘Em Down’s song. “When I was much younger I actually tried using that name, going by Hugh ‘Drive ‘Em Down’ Laurie. It didn’t take. The current favorite is Hugh ‘Fluff And Fold.’ That seems to be getting more traction.”
Laurie may not have his clever blues nickname figured out, but he’s got the spirit of the music he’s always wanted to embody. While New Orleans blues and jazz grew out of hardship, it was ultimately hopeful. And Laurie’s passionate performance of it was a reminder that with determination, even an unlikely dream, like a critically acclaimed actor becoming a blues artist, is possible.