Thursday, July 11, 2013

Let the good times roll: Hugh Laurie live at Le Grand Rex, Paris

With all this faux folk at the moment - in which you can't walk into a muddy festival field without encountering a group of posh boys with asymmetrical haircuts, wielding mandolins and thumping out celtic-tinged good times - it makes a change to encounter a somewhat posh (Eton, Cambridge) actor with thinning grey hair thumping out early 20th century blues.

For Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band are, if nothing else, a jolly good time. There is, though, little point trying to deny you're in the audience for anything other than one of two reasons: 1) you're British and know Laurie best for a 30-year career in TV comedy (collaborations with Stephen Fry, goggle-eyed Blackadder characters etc); and 2) you're French and know him mostly from "Doctor 'ouse".

Looking around Le Grand Rex, the exquisitely art deco Paris theatre, I am in the clear minority as a Brit. Therefore it is quite prudent to assume that shouting out references to lost socks or the more Wodehousean "Tally-ho, pip-pip and Bernard's your uncle" will be lost.

Plus, there is little need. Laurie bursts on stage as if still president of the Cambridge Footlights Revue. "I used to be an actor," he introduces himself, purposely, like an addict declaring in 12-step session "Hi, my name is Hugh and I'm an alcoholic' to supportive applause.

To the many, somewhat scary Laurie devotees in the audience, including a group of ladies wearing T-shirts with "I Love House" and his picture on the front (Kathy Bates in Misery does come to mind...), such a statement might be an issue. Laurie has said previously, that House's success became a "gilded cage" and that he "had some pretty bleak times, dark days when it seemed like there was no escape from the attention".

But here he is, clamouring for it. With a second album - Didn't It Rain - to promote ("I can't believe I've just said 'this is from my first album' he aw-shucks later in the set), Laurie, a very accomplished musician, has brought his love of early blues and jazz to Paris along with highly competent band. With it, a full-on display of the self-effacement and comic foppishness that the English upper middle class do so well. Well, we English in general, actually.

There is something more than a hobby about Laurie's show: it is more musical theatre than, say, a band doing a gig, but that has more to do with Laurie's own entertainingly vaudevillian delivery.

This isn't, however, a travelling version of Jersey Boys. Laurie and his Copper Bottom Band are, as they say in rock circles, a tight act, universally enjoying the repertoire of songs by historic blues figures like W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith and Kansas Joe McCoy. Nor is this a vanity project - the idea of recording an album was presented to him by a record executive who'd seen him demonstrate his chops in an episode of House.

Englishmen from relatively comfortable backgrounds have been performing blues songs since the 1960s, of course. They have never claimed affinity with the music's originators, simply a love of a musical form that, when it gets you, it gets you. But whereas most have trawled the Mississippi Delta for the sort of bottleneck blues that got Beale Street jumping in the Depression, Laurie's authentic passion spreads across a wider range of American roots music.

Thus we run from the New Orleans standard Iko Iko and the much-covered Let The Good Times Roll (man alive, even Joe Strummer did a version of it), to Ray Charles' What Kind Of Man Are You, Lead Belly's infectious You Don't Know My Mind and even Mystery Train, made famous by Elvis Presley, despite being a 1955 B-side (Laurie, once more, self-effacingly apologises for performing a song by "the most famous man to ever walk the planet" without any need, as it's actually done very well).

Indeed they're all done well. Laurie needn't have remained in character so much. As a performer he's a better pianist than singer (he produces an excellent rendition of Nina Simone's I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel - best known to British TV viewers as the theme to the BBC's Barry Norman/Jonathan Ross weekly 'Film...' programme).

What Laurie lacks as a singer is made up for by the two starkly contrasting vocalists the Copper Bottom Band has in its midst: 'Sister' Jean McClain - who sometimes goes by the name of Pepper Mashay - is a journeywoman backing singer, with the kind of gospel voice that pins the lugholes back without apology. Taking lead vocal on Send Me To The Electric Chair, she soon has the audience swayin' and hollerin' as if attending Sunday morning chapel.

While much of the evening follows the course of the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans, Laurie and band head even further south with Kiss Of Fire, an Argentinian tango that brings young Guatemalan backing vocalist Gaby Moreno to center stage for a breathless rendition of the turn-of-century pot boiler, once covered by Louis Armstrong. Here, Moreno applies a noirish vibrato to her vocal parts, sung in Spanish, while Laurie contributes the counter melody in English.

We have, at this point, landed firmly in the territory of West End period musical. For a more conventional blues act, it would have been an eccentric choice at best, but with Laurie rarely stepping out of character, it merely adds to the Good Old Days variety of the show.

Laurie may never shake off the actor tag. To some, he may forever be Gregory House or Bertie Wooster. His persistent, very English self-effacement throughout the show certainly won't rid him of the latter association. But you cannot fault his earnestness. His knowledge of this music being played is encyclopedic, and his lifelong passion for it comes through with every song - all the way through to the finale.

Changes - the Alan Price song I always associate with an 1980s TV commercial for the Abbey National bank - is played with full-on New Orleans trad jazz gusto, a ripe trombone leading out a Mardis Gras procession in full flow before abandoning the Crescent City for Chicago and Chuck Berry's You Never Can Tell. Well known for its 'role' in Pulp Fiction, Laurie's 12-bar piano boogie and brisk accompaniment from the seven musicians brings the encore to a sprightly conclusion.

I could have probably left it there. But there is a crowd-pleasing coda to the evening: the Disney Jungle Book singalong I Wanna Be Like You. Having started the evening with Iko Iko, and wandered our way through the hinterlands of blues and traditional jazz, we end with a song from the collective childhood of almost everyone in the theatre.

This finale may have an air of self-indulgence about it. It was an enjoyable novelty when I used to hear it on Junior Choice on a Saturday morning, for Laurie a light-hearted piece of big band fun. Clearly, he's enjoying himself. How very unlike a certain doctor I could mention.

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