Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Spice of 'Fess: Hugh Laurie's Didn’t It Rain

When he was 19-years-old, Hugh Laurie, a young actor and piano player, heard Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (One Way Records, 1978), an album by one of New Orleans's great musicians. "It changed everything for me," Laurie told The Telegraph last spring in describing what for him was a profound experience. The record captures Longhair late in his life, playing that unique New Orleans gumbo of r&b, jazz, Cajun and blues. After listening to it again recently, I can understand how it would impress a young Laurie because it's everything we came to expect as “definitive” 'Fess. If history is anything to go by, Laurie is trying to capture some of that same authentic New Orleans sound on his new record, Didn't It Rain (Warner, 2013). Produced by Joe Henry, this is Hugh Laurie’s second album with his excellent group, the Copper Bottom Band. (Laurie is 53 years-of-age). As good as this record is, though, I can't get past the "actor as musician" stigma that was present on his first release, Let Them Talk (Warner, 2011), which reached No. 16 on the Billboard charts and went Gold in the UK. Is he hard to take seriously as a musician? Considering all of his work as an actor, most recently with the highly successful House, Laurie could be playing a role like any other, only this time it’s as a singer with affection for blues and cabaret music from New Orleans. From what I’ve read, Laurie does take his music seriously, but perhaps not himself.

Consequently, on this album, we hear a rather campy version of “Kiss of Fire” featuring the strict tango beat which fully supports an entertaining version of a rarely recorded song. Similarly, we also get some spirited performances of “Vicksburg Blues,” “Wild Honey” and “Careless Love.” The music gets a lot less satiric on the title track, “Didn’t it Rain,” a gospel song, once recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s a strong version due to some superb performances by lead vocalists, Gaby Moreno and Jean McLain. Laurie doesn’t sing on this track; he plays piano and, by deferring the vocal the Copper Bottom Band assembled by Joe Henry, it really stands out. And it should because the group includes some familiar players in the so-called Henry roster including Jay Bellerose on drums, Kevin Breit, guitar, David Piltch, bass and Greg Leisz, mandolin. It’s the ensemble that really shines, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, as it were. “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” is particularly poignant.

Hugh Laurie & The Copper Bottom Band

In the liner notes Laurie goes to considerable length to explain how and why a “white, middle-class, Englishman” is pursuing these songs from the pantheon of American culture, whose heart is New Orleans. “The further I go the more bewitched I become – both by the songs, and by the people I have been lucky enough to play them with.” It would be unfair to call this album “performance art”; nevertheless Hugh Laurie lends his experience as a performer to the music on this album, with generally good results. “Changes,” written by Alan Price from the movie O Lucky Man, not only suits his voice but also the “character” of Hugh Laurie. Laurie may not have the chops of Professor Longhair, either as a piano player or vocalist, but this album is much better than his debut record of 2011. And while Laurie’s “gumbo” may not have the heat of ‘Fess, it certainly has the spice.

Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band are currently on tour.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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