When it comes to actors-turned-musicians, fans have learned to raise an eyebrow and lower their expectations. Fortunately, Hugh Laurie is in on the joke.
“Thank you all for coming. It’s a leap of faith, really. Some of you may know that until recently I was an actor,” he says, drawing out the words in a faux posh accent as he walks on the stage at Riverside’s Fox Theater. “It’s strange to see someone doing what you don’t expect them to do. Let’s imagine we were all on an airplane together and the pilot’s voice came through the cabin and said, ‘Until recently, I was a dental hygienist. Flying was just something I’ve always wanted to do.’ If you’re apprehensive, I don’t blame you.”
The man who spent years playing the irascible doctor at the center of House isn’t technically an actor-turned-musician. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who has been in love with the blues for decades, a fact that TV producers incorporated into his character’s backstory. Now, without long-term acting commitments on his plate, Laurie is free to pursue other passions. His recent album, Didn’t It Rain, comes three years after his musical debut, Let Them Talk.
Laurie doesn’t just love to play; he loves to play for people who revere blues, jazz, and soul as much as he does. Prefacing most songs with “this is a very old song”—until he grew tired of the pattern and said “this one was written at 4 p.m. today”—he digs deep: Bessie Smith, Dr. John, Louis Prima, Professor Longhair, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Lead Belly. Laurie is clearly in awe.
“A lot of the songs we’re doing are a hundred or more years old. They form what I believe to be probably America’s greatest gift to the world,” he says. “And you’ve given many great gifts. Moon landing? Fantastic. Cheeseburgers? Excellent. Martini? Hard to beat. But this is probably the greatest gift anybody could give anybody. And, frankly, the world owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Together with the Copper Bottom Band, the 54-year-old Englishman manages to make you feel like you’ve stepped into mid-century New Orleans (with a brief detour into Latin America thanks to the Argentinian classic “El Choclo”). On Friday night in Riverside the stage sported throw rugs, lamps, a bird cage, end-tables with framed black-and-white photos and a portrait of singer and guitarist Son House.
Laurie himself is a deft pianist, but his soulful co-singers, Gaby Moreno and Sister Jean McClain, and his brass players pick up the slack where his voice leaves off. If there weren’t a curfew, they’d probably jam all night, stopping only for another round of whiskey, “English apple juice,” Laurie joked on stage.
It’s hard for some to believe that Laurie, who spent eight years as the brilliant but prickly Dr. Gregory House, is a comedian at heart. He got his start in England as half of the comedy duo Fry & Laurie with his best friend Stephen Fry. The two starred in the sketch comedy series A Bit of Fry & Laurie (in which he often played instruments), Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster, the escapades of a bumbling upper class British twit (Laurie) and his deadpan butler (Fry).
That’s part of what makes Laurie’s show worth seeing: It’s a return to his roots as an entertainer. He takes jaunty leaps around the stage, dances with his bandmates, plays the piano with his feet, and constantly bows to the rest of the musicians on stage, grinning infectiously the entire time. He seems so happy being a touring musician that he’d play to an empty room if he had to. It’s a far cry from House’s perpetual misery.
Tickets are still available for Hugh Laurie & The Copper Bottom Band at the Fonda tonight.