Sunday, September 25, 2011

House of Blues: Hugh Laurie’s Let Them Talk

If you have spent much time in Starbuck’s lately, you have surely heard a good portion of British actor Hugh Laurie’s new CD, a tribute to the music of New Orleans. Though undeniably the beneficiary of a considerable marketing campaign, the man known as Dr. House can definitely carry a tune in his medical kit and has an agreeable touch on the ivories. Laurie explains his love for those Crescent City sounds and performs a set of jazz and blues standards in Great PerformancesHugh Laurie: Let Them Talk (preview here), which premieres on most PBS stations this Friday.

In his introductory voice-over, Laurie tells viewers every man is entitled to one pilgrimage in his life. Laurie had the good taste to take his in NOLA. He took the scenic route getting there though, stopping off at bluesy-rootsy roadside attractions, like Euclid Records, whose mail-order operations are well beloved by many of us, and sitting in at Maggie Mae’s in Austen, Texas, with Miss Lavelle White, who can vocalize a mean harmonica.

Granted, just about anyone would sound okay fronting a band assembled by New Orleans R&B maestro Allen Toussaint, performing with special guests Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones. In truth though, Laurie is at least pretty good in his own right on vocals, piano, and a spot of guitar. He offers the appropriate support to Thomas, “The Soul Queen of New Orleans," on “John Henry” and backs up Jones nicely during “Baby Please Make a Change,” a soul shouter perfectly suited to the Welsh icon. Laurie also has a surprisingly strong left on the ivories, opening a real can of barrelhouse on “Swanee River” and gamely tackling the Professor Longhair classic “Tiptina.”

As a vocalist, Laurie has a strong, clear tone that expresses the plaintiveness of “St. James Infirmary” quite strikingly. Arranged with stately funkiness by Toussaint, it is obviously positioned as the concert’s showcase number, and rightly so. The highlight of the set, it is here that Laurie really puts his stamp on an old school New Orleans classic. It ought to be the title track, but it might have confused some of his House fans (though it sounds medical).

Mostly, Let Them Talk is a respectfully traditional celebration of the NOLA songbook, (though Laurie earns further credit for capturing Jelly Roll Morton’s idiosyncratic attitude in “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”). Much like the still vital local music scene one can find in the small clubs on Frenchmen Street, Laurie and Toussaint effortlessly blend jazz, blues, and R&B throughout the set. It is quite pleasant, but if it rocks your world, just wait until you check out the original recordings from Toussaint, Louis Armstrong, James Black, and ‘Fess Longhair.

While some of Laurie’s narration is a bit hokey, the music will remind many of us once again why we fell in love with New Orleans, which is what good valentines are supposed to do. There is one glaring misstep though: Toussaint’s band is never introduced on camera or allowed to take the bow they earned. An enjoyable love letter nonetheless, Laurie’s Let Them Talk airs on most PBS outlets this Friday (9/30), including New York’s Thirteen, as part of the current season of Great Performances.