Report: Hugh Laurie Live in San Fran

 

Freed
from playing Dr. Gregory House, veteran British actor Hugh Laurie charms
legions of fans at the Great
American Music
Hall on May 27 by performing vintage American
soul music. 

By Jud Cost

It might have been a shock to some of the more casual fans of House, the
critically-lauded doctor show that recently ended its successful 8-year run on
Fox-TV. Its main character, Dr. Gregory House played by Hugh Laurie, doesn’t
really need a cane to walk about,  he isn’t addicted to Vicodin pain
killers-and he’s British, not American. He is, he admits, totally hooked on
vintage, soulful American music.

Now freed from a demanding television schedule, Laurie has time to follow his
heart’s desire, accompanied by the Copper Bottom Band, a six-piece outfit of
grizzled music veterans who can add baritone sax, bottleneck guitar, bass and
drums in all the right places to the ancient music he loves. Perched behind a baby
grand piano at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Laurie drinks it all
in. “It’s such a joy to play in a beautiful old building like this,”
he says. “I only hope I don’t defile it. And let’s face it,” he
quips, “this could be awful.”

Of course, “awful” was never in the equation. For any folks who
wandered into the joint by accident, scratchy recordings of marches by Edward
Elgar and John Philip Sousa, as well as classic arias by Enrico Caruso and
light opera from Gilbert & Sullivan that warmed up the crowd, should have
tipped them off to what was about to happen.

The Cambridge and Eton-educated Laurie, who worked on dramatic productions with
Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry during his college days, got a foothold in
America from 1990-93 by playing Bertie Wooster to Fry’s valet Jeeves in PBS’
Masterpiece Theatre’s Jeeves and Wooster, from characters created by
P.G. Wodehouse.

House‘s roaring success has made Laurie a household name in the States.
Urbane and witty, the antithesis of his surly television doctor, Laurie strides
onstage to a thundering ovation from a crowd that had stretched all the way
down O’Farrell Street
and around the corner to see their hero. “Tonight has been billed as ‘An
evening with Hugh Laurie.’ That seems too suggestive,” he says impishly.
“I would have called it ‘A cup of tea and we’ll see where it goes.'”
As to his mid-life change of career, he says, “What if I’d said, ‘Now I’d
like to be a pilot for Delta Airlines.’ That’s not going to happen, although in
L.A. (where
he’s been living during the House years) who knows?”

“I should advise you, if I screw up these songs, just look at me and
listen to them,” he warns, pointing toward the Copper Bottom people. He
proceeds to knock it out of the park with a scary version of Louis Armstrong’s
“St. James Infirmary.” Afterwards, Laurie claims, “That song was
written about a leprosy clinic in London.
It’s always fascinated me that songs like these have the ability to cross
oceans and take on new meaning.”

Next comes a stellar version of “Crazy Arms,” the first song Jerry
Lee Lewis ever cut for Sun Records. Laurie even tries a brief Jerry Lee-style
keyboard schmear. Obviously in his element, Laurie  prefaces a sad tune by
12-string guitar legend Huddie Ledbetter with: “Leadbelly was so good he
sang his way out of prison-twice. After you hear this, you may say I belong in
prison.” If a gospel number attributed to Mahalia Jackson and a Buddy
Bolden song as interpreted by pianist Jellyroll Morton are less successful,
Laurie & Co. strike the mother lode with the Ray Charles R&B gem
“Unchain My Heart.”

Whingers might complain Laurie is just another Limey hijacking American music.
In reality, this isn’t much different than the Beatles, Rolling Stones,
Yardbirds and Kinks cutting their teeth on Afro-American-style R&B they
worshipped as kids from the likes of Arthur Alexander, the Cookies, Muddy
Waters, Carl Perkins, Solomon Burke, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Laurie’s
just doing it later in life with source material dating back to the dawn of the
recording industry. Where he takes it from here is anybody’s guess. More of the
same would be just fine with me.

 

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