Hugh Laurie & The Copper Bottom Band: New York, NY, September 10, 2012
The Grand Ballroom At Manhattan Center
New York, New York
September 10, 2012
There was a palpable feeling of excited anticipation in the air as the audience filed into New York City's Manhattan CenterHugh Laurie, known to many as the irrepressible Dr. Gregory House from the hit television series House, was about to perform songs from his debut CD, Let Them Talk (Warner Brothers, 2011). The anticipation, as well as the volume put forth by the crowd grew as the minutes ticked away and the appointed time grew closer. Bathed in red light, the stage was appropriately dressed like what could very well have been an early 20th Century middle-class living room or bordello sitting room filled with musical instrumentsa perfect setup for that evening's performance of classic New Orleans and Americana songs. Numerous items (as well as a few pleasant surprises) that might have been found in one of these rooms surrounded the instruments: a hat rack, lamps with beaded fringes, rugs and throws, a framed photo (of Professor Longhair) on an end table behind the piano, lush curtains, a chandelier hanging over the middle of the stage and a stuffed pheasantyes, a pheasant. The only thing missing was a comfortable period couch.
Appearing onstage at 8:15pm, in a black formal long coat, dark pants with a green checkered box design and a bluish purple tuxedo shirt, Laurie raised a shot of single malt and announced in his inimitable British accent, "Good evening, New York!" As the capacity crowd broke into enthusiastic applause, Laurie continued, "I like how that sounds. I think I'm going to say that a lot tonight." Laurie continued with a few minutes of disarming chat that included, "Thank you for coming out tonight. I realize this represents a gigantic leap of faith on your part. As many of you know I was until very recently an actor and now you've entrusted me to play music for you." After another round of wild applause, Laurie stated, "Imagine if a pilot said, 'Until a couple weeks ago I was a dental hygienist,'" and then his voice trailed off amid the laughter. With a sly smirk on his face he gleefully pointed to his band and added, "However badly I screw up, listen to them. Look at me, but listen to them."
He then suggested that it was time to "get all the photography over with." Laurie then pantomimed while promising that "these are the six poses that I will be adopting." Once finished with the posturing and hamming it up for the crowd, Laurie asked a member of the audience seated in the first row to e-mail the pictures to the rest of the members of the audience. He then said it was time to begin "getting the show under way," spun around and, along with drummer Jay Bellerose and the other musicians that comprise The Copper Bottom Band, play-acted the exaggerated motions of starting an outboard motor.
The members of the Copper Bottom Band took their places and kicked off the performance with an amazing version of Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy." The next number was an inspired take on Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary," at the end of which Laurie exclaimed, "Good evening, New York! As you may have guessed, that was 'St. James Infirmary.' Let's be honest, the clues were there." He then explained that the song was "based on an 18th Century British folk song about a sailor who fucks a lot and winds up in St. James Infirmary with syphilis. The interesting thing is that St. James Infirmary is now St. James Palace. Hmmmph."
Laurie then led the band through a boogie woogie audience participation version of "Let The Good Times Roll" that featured the house lights brightening during the chorus.
With the crowd clearly eating out of the palm of his hand, Laurie got up from the piano bench and said, "Thank you, you're too kind and for that you get this." He took off his jacket and strapped on his guitar while telling a story about Leadbelly and explaining that he was released from prison because he sang for the governor of Louisiana. He then did a stellar version of "You Don't Know My Mind." As the last notes of the song faded away into the cheers applause from the crowd, Laurie decided to introduce his band. He began with Vincent Henry, who Laurie said was "in charge of all the blowy things." Keyboardist/accordionist Patrick Warren was presented as "playing all the notes I can't playand there are many." Guitarist Kevin Breit was introduced, followed by Bellerose, bassist David Piltch ("His legal name is the incredible David Piltch") and vocalist Sister Jean McClain.
The band then performed what Laurie described as "our version of one of the great stories of the Old Testament." The arrangement of "The Battle Of Jericho" was slightly slower and more dirge-like than the Mahalia Jackson version but no less powerful. Laurie's sly sense of humor was on display when he introduced the next selection. He said, "I don't know how many of you are familiar with the name Buddy Bolden...there isn't a person alive that ever heard him play and everyone says he was the best everfuckin' brilliant. This is a song by someone who did hear himJelly Roll Morton." Laurie's version of "Buddy Bolden's Blues" featured the following verse:
"Thought I heard, Buddy Bolden say
You're nasty and dirty, take it away
You're terrible and awful, take it away
I thought I heard him say
Thought I heard, Buddy Bolden shout
Open up that window, and let that bad air out
Open up that window, and let that stinky air out
Thought I heard Buddy Bolden say."
A very blues-infused version of "Unchain My Heart" followed. The version put forth by Laurie and his band started slightly slower than the well-known Ray Charles version (as well as the more recent Joe Cocker version), and featured backing vocals by Sister Jean McClain, with call-and-response echoing. As the song moved forward the tempo picked up a bit and veered closer to the Ray Charles version. With the second tempo change and Henry blowing hard on the sax, the song really began to rock. Laurie's piano then slowed things down before speeding it up again and bringing it home. Laurie then announced that "Unchain My Heart" was a "song written by Bobby Sharp, who was a junkie. He sold it to a rather unscrupulous publisher. It took him fifty years to get his publishing rights back." He then chuckled and continued, "An interesting fact...Bobby Sharp published songs under the name B. Sharp. Speaking of heroin this is 'Junco Partner.'"
In the liner notes to Let Them Talk Laurie wrote, "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s...I've never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman attended my birth and there's no hellhound on my trail, as far as I'm aware. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south." Yet his rocking' version of "Junco Partner" would have done James Booker proud.
Laurie then jumped up from the piano and, glancing across the stage, ran to his guitar, picked it up, strapped it on and said, with tongue placed firmly in cheek, that he "really couldn't play it that well but the salesman said it was slimming. This is an old Jimmy Rogers song; there aren't any new Jimmy Rogers songs." He then performed a perfect version of "Waitin' For The Train." When the applause died down, he remained at center stage and again addressed the crowd, "Were going to do another Jelly Roll Morton song. This is "Whinin' Boy Blues." With that, guitarist Kevin Breit and Piltch (on stand-up bass) came front-and-center and joined him while supplying some spine-tingling solos. Laurie's self-deprecating wit was again on display when he quipped, "I could do that stuff, but I choose not to." And the crowd erupted again.
The show continued with "Louisiana Blues" on which he was joined by Vincent Henry on harmonica and vocals and "John Henry," which featured lead vocals by Sister Jean McClain.
In what can be described as the classiest example (ever) of a musician taking a drink while onstage, Laurie took a moment to tell the story of how he and the band began christening each new venue they played by taking a drink of Macallan single malt scotch whisky. Suddenly, a roadie appeared with a tray full of shots which Laurie passed around the stage. The musicians then toasted each other and the audience. And then it was back to the music.
Laurie then really showed his musical chops on an instrumental tour de force which he introduced with, "Just me and Vincent left on this onea real old tune by Creamer and Layton called 'Dear Old Southland.'" Next up was "Wild Honey," the Dr. John tune on which current New Orleans piano rolls were introduced into the set. It was during this song that Bellerose was given an opportunity to shine. His short drum solo was exquisite: economical and tasty.
Laurie spent a good portion of the evening serving as a musicologist as well as a performer. Many songs were introduced with detailed information about the composer, original performer and the most well-known version of the song. Additionally, Laurie managed to seamlessly and humorously insert his history into the preamble to many of the songs. Following "Wild Honey," he began the introduction of the next song with, "I took piano lessons when I was a child. I really hated my teacher. I stuck with it for months, crawling through the practice manual, looking forward to one song toward the middle of the book. The day finally arrived, when the teacher turned to page 26. 'Swanee River,' she read, 'Negro Spiritualoh no...' With that she turned the page...And so," he said in his very proper upper-crust English accent, "I killed her." The version of "Swanee River" began with the traditional spiritual and bluesy opening that magically segued and transformed into a rockin' boogie woogie version that would have been quite at home in a deep south juke joint.
The band then started to jam on the extended intro to what, to untrained ears, could have been "We Will Rock You." Laurie put all fears aside when he exclaimed that, "If you think we're going to do a Queen song now, you've taken a very wrong turn." The jam, at this point, evolved into the very funky "Will It Go Round In Circles."
Sister Jean McClain then took over on lead vocals and sang Bessie Smith's "Send Me to the Electric Chair." The song ended with the stage lights flickering and audience cheering deliriously. Laurie then rolled his eyes and interjected, "Good luck to anyone who has to sing after that."
It was at this point that Laurie introduced Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" as a song that "has influenced many New Orleans piano players. I don't know what it's about or what it means and frankly I don't care. I just love it." The ensuing version with its emotional vocals and rolling piano was electrifying and joyous.
When introducing "Green, Green Rocky Road" Laurie cheerfully announced that "dancing is not only allowed; it's required." The band then kicked it hard with a rendition that leaned heavily on a funky Memphis Soul beat. When the song came to an end, Laurie again stood at center stage and gave the audience a heartfelt thank you for coming while joking that the band didn't know any more songs and were the show to continue "we would have to start over from the beginning."
Laurie and the band then left the stage only to return a very short time later. Laurie again, thanked the audience for their indulgence and kindness. He then sang the plaintive yet bouncy "Changes" with its lyrics:
"Love must always turn to sorrow
'Cause its here today and gone tomorrow
Still the world goes on the same."
The show closed with a rousing version of "Tanqueray," on which Laurie morphed his already deep voice into a very southern growl that demanded the attention of the already enraptured audience. The effect and the performance were stunning.
The lights came up, and Laurie and the musicians took their bows to thunderous applause. The actor/musician strode to the front of the stage, raised his arm and with a flourish presented The Copper Bottom Band in its entirety, took another bow and simply said, "Good evening, New York!"
[Additional article contributions by Christine Connallon].