‘House’ of Blues: Hugh Laurie in ‘Perspectives: Down by the River’

Let Them Talk
Hugh Laurie

You did not know this perhaps, but Hugh Laurie’s real intention when adopting America as his home was not to create a stir on television but to break into music. His ulterior motive, with the whole acting gig in House just a ploy really, was to be accepted as a serious musician in New Orleans. And being House has certainly opened many doors for him as this documentary, shown on I TV1 in the UK on 15 May 2011, demonstrates. As he tells us, his belief is: ‘There’s only two categories of music that matter: there’s good and there’s bad, the rest is just indexing.’

Hugh Laurie explores his passion for the blues as he travels across Texas, along the Mississippi, and into New Orleans. It’s traditional work that inspires him, music from the ’50s and ’60s and earlier, in his pursuit for the authentic sound for his new album: Professor Longhair, Jellyroll Morton, and Mississippi Sheiks. But this is not just a travelogue with stops along the way; it offers renditions of great tunes (from Irma Thomas and Tom Jones as guest artistes) and features Laurie’s trademark wit to make it engaging and not overly-sentimental.

‘My Obi Wan’ in this quest, he tells us, is record producer and singer/songwriter Joe Henry who tells us the respect he has for Laurie and the admiration for his bravery in entering into such a venture as recording an album of blues music in New Orleans. Yes, Laurie still cannot quite believe it, and has to pinch himself: ‘A middle-aged, middle-class, balding Englishman has no business playing the blues… But what do you do about it?’ He feels he has come home on this spiritual and emotional journey, and never hides his awe and admiration for the artists he gets to work with and the soul of New Orleans that, he says, ‘has looked death in the face’ and come away more alive than ever with its music intact and more powerful.

He talks about the vast cultural expectations that have possessed him and British audiences in general. So he felt hugely invested in the music of New Orleans; but he admits nothing really prepared him – no fictional or recorded rendition – for the real impact that Baptist church music, in the flesh, makes on him or the experience of cycling around the city with music emanating from every doorway.

His voice, which unfortunately lacks richness, just about keeps up with the demands of the songs; but his playing is undoubtedly of a high quality, on piano (he is compared to Jerry Lee Lewis) and guitar, he acquits himself well in extremely illustrious company. He feels that he is able to be a conduit, via his acting reputation, to introduce young people to the greats. Irma Thomas brings her ‘special flavor’ as she calls it to the recording, with Laurie on backing vocals, to which he is much better suited.

He has actually died and gone to Heaven by the end, as he plays a concert with Allen Toussaint in the heart of the French Quarter. So don’t expect any more episodes of House anytime soon.