in performance: hugh laurie and the copper bottom band

hugh laurie. photo by michael wilson.

“I realize this represents a gigantic leap of faith on your part,” remarked Hugh Laurie to a sold out audience last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

In theory, he was spot on. Laurie was in town not as the famed British comedian of the’90s (although there were hints of that peppered in his stage profile) or the actor who, for eight television seasons, inhabited the dour, tortured title role of House. No, last night Laurie visited Lexington as one of those great artistic curiosities: a musician and singer without a hit or even a signature tune playing to a capacity crowd that knew him almost exclusively for non-musical endeavors.

Admittedly, past dramatic television or film actors that have dabbled in music have usually played off of dreary, ultra-calculated pop personas where they served as a mere figurehead (Don Johnson comes to mind). But on the basis of last night’s immensely entertaining, two hour performance – a program devoted largely to vintage New Orleans blues, jazz and soul – Laurie’s investment in such a career shift runs considerably deeper.

A very capable pianist versed in stride, blues and boogie woogie playing, Laurie proved to be as much of an historian last night as a musicmaker, generously crediting the scores of Crescent City-area greats – Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, and James Booker, among others – that either penned or popularized the material he took on.

There was an obvious emotional investment, as well. Though technically not the sort of singer capable belting out the full measure of the bluesier, more gospel-directed songs, he nonetheless utilized a singing voice rich in conversational ease that effectively illuminated a version of Careless Love that was delivered as a cross between a lullaby and a dirge.

The real fun, though, erupted when Laurie meshed the full dynamic range of his piano work with the expert support of his six-member Copper Bottom Band. For instance, he approached a parlor piece like Swanee River initially as a blues meditation before his fingers pounded the tune into a jubilant boogie woogie party piece. Similarly, Yeh Yeh strutted along within a parade of merry, punctuated funk colored by flute, baritone sax and neatly orchestrated keyboards.

At the other extreme were passages of casual reflection. Dear Old Southland, the evening’s lone instrumental tune, pared the band down to a duet setting that highlighted the rolling stride of Laurie’s piano work and the tenor saxophone compliments of Vincent Henry.

The Copper Bottom MVP, though, was clearly drummer Jay Bellerose, a longtime T Bone Burnett sidekick who created huge, textured grooves often by pounding the skins with multiple sticks, mallets, tambourines and shakers (not to mention a maraca strapped to his ankle) simultaneously. It was Bellerose’s feel – intense, direct and powerfully soulful – that kept the band engine running.

Devoted to this roots music homage as he obviously was, a bit of the pre-House Brit emerged in some of Laurie’s between song banter, from the recounting of a motorcycle journey taken from Louisville to Lexington earlier in the day that accidentally landed him behind a locked gate at “an unmanned storage facility” to the remembrance of a piano teacher from his youth that wanted to dismiss Swanee River from his practice repertoire.

“And so,” he said in a stoic British mumble, “I killed her.”

Laurie couldn’t help but apologize for the latter quip, though, given the university environment he was performing in.

“I mean, here we are, in the seed of higher learning. What an appalling thought.”

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