Hugh Laurie, “House” well behind him, brings a different persona to Calvin Theatre in Northampton
PHOTO BY MICHAEL WILSON
Hugh Laurie's tour, which stopped at the Calvin Theatre Sunday, is in support of his new album, "Didn't It Rain."
PHOTO BY MARY MCCARTNEY
Hugh Laurie enhances his music performances with a crisp sense of humor.
If you thought you knew all there was to know of Hugh Laurie from his starring role in “House,” think again.
The talented British actor, who made a name for himself on these shores playing an ornery doctor in the popular FOX television series, got his start in live performance doing comedy on British TV. He’s also a fine piano player with a deep love of American blues, jazz and soul.
Laurie brought both those elements to Northampton’s Calvin Theatre Sunday night, as he and his Copper Bottom Band took an enthusiastic audience on an extended tour of blues and blues-influenced music, covering songs from pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith, right up to more modern names such as Dr. John and Elvis Presley.
And far from his brooding “House” persona, Laurie, 54, was a wry, self-deprecating host all evening, telling the sell-out crowd that whatever his musical shortcomings, they were in good hands with the other members of the band.
“For most of you, this is a leap of faith to be here because you’re watching someone who’s not really qualified to do what I’m doing,” he said, as laughter rang around the theater. “It’s a bit like being aboard a plane and hearing the pilot say over the intercom, ‘You know, until two weeks ago I was dental hygienist, but I’ve always wanted to fly.’ ”
But in fact Laurie proved adept at a range of piano styles, pounding out R&B and boogie-style chord progressions and also adding just the right touch, with tasteful and delicate flourishes, to slower songs, including the tango “Kiss of Fire” and a ballad he performed mostly solo, “Careless Love.”
He was a serviceable singer, too, doing a fine job on “Careless Love” and lending a gritty tone to more uptempo numbers like the two New Orleans staples that opened the show, “Iko Iko” and “Let the Good Times Roll.” But Laurie was also intent on sharing the stage with his seven band members, who were all outstanding — particularly his two backup singers, Gabby Moreno and Jean McClain, who both took center stage on a number of duets and solos.
Moreno, a Guatemalan singer/songwriter who sings in both Spanish and English, was superb on the slow blues “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” by Kansas Joe McCoy, while McClain belted out “Send Me to the e_SSRqLetric Chair,” originally made famous by Bessie Smith, and sounded a haunted note on “I Hate a Man Like You” by Jelly Roll Morton. Their highlight as a duo was the gospel-tinged “My Journey to the Sky,” with just Laurie accompanying them on piano.
“If I had to pick someone to take Bessie Smith’s place, it would be Jean,” Laurie said after one of McClain’s solos. He then added, “You might wonder, what kind of idiot would try to sing after that?” before looking around the theater, rolling his eyes upward, then giving a bemused half-smile and saying “Hmm, I guess that’s me.”
Anchoring Laurie and the two singers was a crack team that included Vincent Henry on saxophone, clarinet and harmonica; guitarist Mark Goldenberg (lead guitarist for Jackson Browne), who also handled banjo, organ and accordion; and trombonist Elizabeth Lea, who sometimes used a plunger on her instrument to summon the sound and feel of early New Orleans jazz. Goldenberg, meanwhile, offered a range of solos, from electric slide to tasty rockabilly riffs on acoustic guitar on Presley’s “Mystery Train.”
Up the Mississippi
Laurie and his band have been touring extensively this year in support of his new album, “Didn’t It Rain,” which follows his 2011 album “Let Them Talk.” The first disc was dedicated to New Orleans blues and jazz, whereas the new album moves up the Mississippi River, so to speak, to examine older blues from St. Louis and other parts of the U.S. heartland.
Laurie, wearing a purple tuxedo shirt and a gray suit, said this was his first visit to Northampton — he decided to address the audience as “Northie” — and he also pronounced the Calvin “a fabulous place. Named after your estimable 30th president, I’m told. A good choice — the Calvin Klein Theatre doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?”
Aside from Laurie’s comic bantering, both with his band and the audience, what stood out about Sunday’s show was its variety and ambiance. The stage was decorated with table lamps, a few pieces of furniture and other props, all designed to create the look and feel of a funky New Orleans club or large sitting room.
To further that down-home atmosphere, Laurie passed out a tray of shot glasses to his band members halfway through the show, and they all took a sip of whiskey as Laurie toasted the band and the audience.
Musically, the songs moved from rocking tunes like “Let the Good Times Roll,” toe-tappers like “Didn’t It Rain,” and the slow shuffle of “Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael, which Laurie performed on acoustic guitar with backup harmonies by Henry, drummer Herman Matthews and bass player David Piltch, all four standing round a single microphone at center stage.
The two-and-a-half-hour show included two encores, the second of which consisted of the band’s version of “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, a tribute to the seminal indie rocker, who had died earlier that day.
The crowd gave Henry, Goldenberg and Lea regular rounds of applause for their strong solos, and McClain and Moreno got some of the biggest hands for their vocals. Laurie added his own acclaim, dancing with exaggerated, goofy steps at times to the music and kneeling with bowed head, almost in supplication, before Moreno after one of her solos.
Laurie also did his best to deal with a few audience members who kept calling out, usually unintelligibly, while he was speaking. At one point, in an amiable tone, he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you have a shoe in your mouth? Is it perhaps someone else’s shoe?”
Though he didn’t go into detail, Laurie said he’d been a fan of American blues and jazz since he was a boy and now took great pleasure in being able to perform those songs for audiences. All joking aside, he noted, that body of music is essentially a piece of international goodwill today and perhaps America’s finest export.
“Speaking on behalf of the world — and I am authorized — this music is your greatest gift,” he said. “I know you have many other fine accomplishments — first man on the moon, your martinis — but this one really stands out.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.