Hugh Laurie Goes to New Orleans

Ah, celebrity! It opens so many doors to the good life: the best tables at restaurants, invitations to royal events, packed goodie bags at awards shows.

And say you’re a weekend musician who has dabbled in a certain style of music, record companies may contact you to come into the studio, film companies may underwrite your dream trip to your music mecca, and best of all, you may have your own little gig, surrounded by the best musicians in the field.

Such was the wish-fulfillment for Hugh Laurie, known as the dour doctor in “House.” He’s been a musician in the Hollywood band that mostly plays cover songs for charity events, TV on the Radio. Back in England, he’s amused talk show audiences with the unexpected song, including his own novelty, “I’m in Love with Steffi Graf.”

But from a young age, he’s been motivated by the blues, he says.

And he got his dreams fulfilled by visiting New Orleans, where an all-star band was assembled for him, for a recording on Warner Bros. Records and a special on the PBS series “Great Performances” Friday.

“Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk – A Celebration of New Orleans Blues” is part heartfelt travelogue, part uncomfortable small club gig. Laurie’s enthusiasm for all parts of Southern culture is matched by his charm in discussing it – he’s infatuated with all the hats people wear down there – including himself.

He drives a red Galaxie 500 convertible (another childhood dream) from Texas to the Crescent City, stopping at small gigs and guitar jams along the way. Once in the city, he spends more time at record stores than restaurants, but there’s no doubt he finds the place a wonderland: Katrina and its still-visible scars are scarcely mentioned.

His main business in town is jamming with a great band led by Allen Toussaint.

Laurie is a passably fine pianist who tentatively attempts a barrelhouse style here and there. But when you have Toussaint in the room it seems silly to use anyone else – unless he’s the TV star who is the central part of the project.

New Orleans musicians are used to this kind of work, supporting players who swoop in to record or film, whether it’s Elvis Costello or the crew from “Treme.” And while the work is doubtless appreciated, it’s time those musicians themselves were in the spotlight.

While a passable pianist, who wouldn’t be kicked out of a New Orleans session, Laurie is only a middling vocalist, flat despite his stab at styling it. That’s especially apparent when Irma Thomas walks in and especially when another seeming U.K. fish out of water walks in, Sir Tom Jones.

Jones isn’t way out of his field – he recorded a convincing gospel album last year. But each appear only once on the Warner Bros. album “Let Them Talk,” which features the tasteful drums of Jay Bellerose and was produced by Joe Henry.

Give the actor credit for having great taste in music and holding his own in a room of giants. And if it takes a TV star to get PBS down to New Orleans, so be it. For those who know him only as Dr. House it will be just as much a revelation to see him dancing without a cane as it is to have him play piano.

“I can’t deny it was the without a doubt the most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Laurie says of his performance.

And yet, he added, “you know that sort of old cliché of having to pinch yourself? I really did. I thought this is a dream. I’m in a sort of dream like state here. This much good fortune should not happen to one person. And being as morbid as I am, of course that only makes me anticipate bad fortune a little bit down the road.”

Blues music, he told writers at the TV critics association summer press tour, he first heard on the radio in England.

“As soon as I heard my first Willie Dixon song, I was on the hunt, and I would spend my pocket money on whatever blues records I could find, and Muddy Waters was my first when I was on that guitar part, Muddy Waters was where I spent most of my teenage years, was just listening to him over and over again, and the more I listened to him, the more I started to hear, even on a crappy little mono record player, I started to hear the piano playing of Otis Spann because Muddy Waters, of course, had an unbelievable, never to be repeated band. But Otis Spann’s piano playing was something that I became absolutely entranced by and knew that I wanted to at least hear it forever if not actually try and play it forever.”

And there was the magic of the Crescent City.

“New Orleans is a unique city in many ways, but it’s musically unique because it is — for a variety of historical reasons, it has sat in a unique place between so many different musical influences, whether they’re Spanish and French and English and Caribbean, and it just has its own it has its own feel. And it is like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and it’s like no kind of music that I’ve ever heard. And ever since I was a very small boy, it is the sounds of that city that have just thrilled me like no other.”

Traveling down there, he says, “this whole project and whole experience has been, really, closer to who I am than many things I’ve done, and I suppose that, because the subject was so dear to my heart and the odyssey, if I can pretentiously call it that, was so important to me, I suppose it was something that I was able to not really consciously worry about too much. I just let it happen. It was very unplanned. It was a genuine journey of discovery. We had very few plans along the way.”

The musicians there and the big names were all very kind to him, Laurie says. “They were what was so extraordinary to me was that they were, to a man and woman, incredibly generous. I was not made to feel either by the musicians I was playing with or by those singers for one second unqualified or unwelcome.

“I mean, I’m sure there were moments when they were, behind my back, when they were rolling their eyes going, ‘Oh, for we’re going to be here all night.’ But if they did, they never showed it to me.”

The usually dour Laurie in “House” looks so delighted in “Let Them Talk,” I wondered if he ever thought of chucking acting altogether for a life in music.

“In fact, I’ve had that in my head for many, many years,” he said. “When I was very young actually, have this rather romantic idea of playing in a jazz trio in Lisbon — I don’t know why I settled on Lisbon. I’ve never been to Lisbon. I know nothing about it. I think they have red tile roofs. That’s all I know about Lisbon. And they may have lots of vibrant jazz cafes; I don’t know.

“But that was my idea. And it’s always been at the back of my mind that that’s where I would wind up, is you know, I’d be playing “Autumn Leaves” in some hotel lobby somewhere. Yeah, it’s been in my mind for decades.”

Do you see that coming very close to happening? I asked him, perhaps hoping to prod some sort of “I am quitting ‘House’ sort of declaration.

“Well, I can’t deny that I had the most extraordinary experience doing this record and this film,” Laurie says. “And if someone said we’d love you to do another one, it starts at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning, I would be there like a shot. I can’t think of anything better. And if that eventually takes me to that cafe in Lisbon, so be it. I would be very happy doing that.”

“Hugh Laurie: Let them Talk – A Celebration of New Orleans Blues” premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on “Great Performances” on PBS. Check local listings.

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