“I know what you’re thinking” says Hugh Laurie, the longtime musician & actor best known as Dr. House on TV, to the packed house at The Vic Theater in Chicago. After completing his obligation with the show, the long-time musician pursued a full-time career professionally playing the blues he loves. Now, Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band are currently touring to support his second New Orleans-heavy album, Didn’t It Rain. With sharp British self-effacing humor, he continues a brief dialogue as he discusses how it doesn’t typically work out well for actors who turn to music. Nobody would want to get on a plane if “I was a dental hygienist last week — but my passion has always been flying,” Laurie jokes after the opening song.
But in staunch defiance of the familiar actors-turned-bad-musicians stereotype, there was a distinct magic in Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band’s set that evokes the rousing ghosts of a New Orleans vaudeville act. And as his music quickly shows, Laurie’s been a student of the blues his entire life. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recall where I was when I heard John Lennon had been assassinated,” Laurie once said in an interview with The Times Magazine, “but I do remember where I was when Muddy Waters died… Now I’ll never get to see him play live.”
With eight pieces including a horn section, two stunning backup (and occasionally lead) singers, a wonderfully succinct drummer, and a stand up bassist, the band’s sound was rich and full. Several of the artists, including Laurie, played multiple instruments through the night — adding depth and personality to songs as needed with a harmonica, ukelele, mandolin and even an accordion if the situation was called for. Hugh, a rousing piano player, was equally skilled at beating on or gently tickling the ivories, and occasionally jumped on guitar duty.
Laurie’s influences run deep, and close to the Mississippi River — particularly where it meets the sea in New Orleans. The band waltzed through James Booker, Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Dr. John and a tune by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Minnie’s part was sung by the Guatemalan singer Gabby Moreno who’s beauty was only matched by her immense talent. At one point, the men from the band gathered around the microphone for a four part harmony. Immaculately dressed in their full suits, hats in hand, they sang the 1930 tune “Up A Lazy River”. To complete the vintage effect, pops and cracks like an old record played underneath the men’s soothing voices. The wildly talented female vocalist Sista Jean, in addition to lending her beautiful vocals to a number of leads, did a proverbial musical dance with Laurie to Ray Charles’ “What Kind Of Man Are You”, pushing her vibrato and surely making Mary Ann Fisher proud.
Dancing ensued, crowds clapped and when the show was over, they demanded encore after encore, which the band was happy to give — even after Laurie playfully admitted that they’d run out of songs they knew. Yet The Copper Bottom Band knows how to put on a finale. They pooled every ounce of energy on stage for the third and final encore; Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”. The crowd pushed aside chairs and inhibitions and danced.
While many in the audience no doubt came to get a look at the actor who played one of TV’s most iconic roles, one thing is for certain: when they went home, they were talking about the musician who managed to craft a rousing, wickedly entertaining, deeply memorable live show from songs that peaked in popularity from the thirties to the sixties.