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There was something downright disconcerting about seeing Gregory House, TV’s most famous misanthrope, joyfully singing, dancing and playing piano onstage in a concert devoted to classic American roots music. But then again, it wasn’t really House, it was Hugh Laurie, the British actor who embodied him for eight years. The latest in a long line of stars who have parlayed their success into musical moonlighting, Laurie proved that he is no dilettante in this stellar evening.
What he is, clearly, is a passionate lover of vintage American jazz and blues, especially of the New Orleans variety. He’s also an accomplished pianist, a credible guitarist and a serviceable singer whose vocals are enhanced by his interpretive skills and enthusiastic delivery.
These attributes, displayed on his album Let Them Talk, were well showcased Monday at New York’s venerable Grand Ballroom, where he performed with his five-piece Copper Bottom Band, consisting of such top-notch players as Jay Bellerose (drums), Kevin Breit (guitars), Vincent Henry (horns), David Piltch (bass) and Patrick Warren (keyboard/accordion), with Jean McClain on backup vocals.
“I realize it’s a pretty substantial leap of faith on your part,” Laurie assured the audience early on, in an example of the droll, self-deprecating sense of humor so typical of the Brits. “Some of you may know that, until recently, I was an actor.”
Pointing to his band, he added: “However badly I screw up, listen to them. Look at me, but listen to them.”
And listen we did, to a two-hour-plus show featuring classics by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair as superbly interpreted by these first-rate players.
At first, it took some getting used to hearing Laurie talk in his normal, plumy British accent, followed by his singing in a vaguely Southern drawl that was far removed from his gruff House voice. But any apprehensions were erased when he sat down at the piano to expertly play a long, dirge-like intro to the classic “St. James Infirmary” before the band kicked in full throttle.
It was but the first example of his fine playing, which included some rollicking boogie-woogie work on an uptempo “Swanee River.” His vocals, though a bit rough-hewn, were highly expressive on such songs as “You Don’t Know My Mind” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” and supremely joyful on the song he announced was his favorite, Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.”
The playing by his band was consistently inspired, never more so than with the virtuosic bass and guitar solos by Piltch and Breit, respectively, on Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues.” “I could do that stuff, but I choose not to,” Laurie joked afterward. But he proved he could also keep up, playing a beautiful instrumental duet on “Dear Old Southland” with Henry on clarinet.
And when McClain stepped front and center to deliver soaring lead vocals on “John Henry” and Bessie Smith’s chilling “Send Me to the Electric Chair,” she brought down the house. The flickering onstage lights that followed the latter number were a clever touch.
Throughout the proceedings, Laurie delivered a hilarious running commentary that combined sardonic humor with detailed background information about the songs and their composers that befitted his self-description as a “music nerd.”
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