Hugh Laurie @ The Pabst Theater
Aug. 19, 2012
"Until recently I was an actor," Hugh Laurie immediately announced to the audience at the Pabst Theater. "I suppose that is a bit like being on a plane and having the pilot announce that until two weeks ago he was a dental hygienist—how many of you would stay on the plane?"
But Laurie promised the crowd that his musical shortcomings would be covered by his backing musicians, a sextet called The Copper Bottom Band. "They're the Rolls-Royce and I'm the silver-plated statue of ecstasy mounted on the hood," he quipped, as clever as the sharp-witted character he made famous in his starring role on "House."
Laurie's background is middle-class British, but his musical soul belongs to New Orleans. That is where a lot of his sounds and showmanship come from and where he recorded part of his first album, Let Them Talk. The title comes from a cover Laurie performs of a song by New Orleans rhythm and blues musician James Booker. Later in the show, Laurie also alluded to the song title as a way to sum up his response to critics of his new musical lifestyle.
But the audience saw little need for apology or explanation of motivations as Laurie led them through his almost two-hour set. He worked through a wide range of covers, much of it based on blues, jazz and spirituals. He described himself as a "music nerd" and offered odd facts and dry jokes on his repertoire. Laurie's piano-playing skills are solid, and he showed them off early in the set with a dramatic rendition of the standard "St. James Infirmary Blues." He led the crowd in singing along with Earl King's "Let the Good Times Roll."
His singing could be awkward, and he croaked at times as his voice struggled to match the source material. A cover of "You Don't Know My Mind" sounded more like Adam Sandler than its original singer, Leadbelly. At times his singing came through adequately, though. He brought surprising power to the spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," for example. Laurie also felt the need to play guitar on a few songs, although he is more natural behind the piano keys than the strings.
The Copper Bottom Band offered him a strong support system. A cover of "Winin' Boy," one of two covers of master jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, could have easily been a dull performance if not for the whirling strings of his guitar and stand-up bass player. Backup singer Jean McClain momentarily stole the stage when she took lead on the song "John Henry," while Laurie stared at her intently, his lower lip jutting out as he played along on piano.
The band played a two-song encore, including a rollicking barrelhouse version of Johnnie Johnson's "Tanqueray." Unlike the grouchy Dr. House, Laurie seemed to be having a good time.
Photo by Erik Ljung