I used to dream of this city. This has been my Jerusalem- Hugh Laurie
In ITV’s Down By the River documentary, Hugh Laurie’s journey “down the river into the heart of lightness” begins in a two-seater plane, guided to a smooth landing by Laurie himself. This isn’t Hollywood, where Laurie lives when he’s playing the iconic Dr. Gregory House. Nor is it London, the land he considers his true home. We are in Fredericksburg, Texas, the first leg on this extraordinary trip of musical self-discovery. Laurie invites us into the passenger seat of the red 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 he’s purchased especially for this journey, and off we go.
To the strains of Professor Longhair’s Mardi Gras In New Orleans, we travel alongside Laurie as he immerses himself in the music of the land. In Austin, we visit an establishment called Maggie Mae’s where we are treated to a performance by Miss Lavelle White, a blues singer of the first order. She wails out a Jimmy Reed song as the band and Laurie accompany her. Laurie looks like he’s never had so much fun.
Traveling on, Laurie offers a few words of wisdom against classifying music. “There are only two types of music: good and bad. “Everything else is just indexing”. He sits in with a guitar picking circle in Luckenbach, where anyone can join. “All you need is a guitar…and a hat”. Equipped with both, he strums his acoustic and grins, content to let the other players take the spotlight. He is learning. Soaking it in. Reveling in the music, culture and camaraderie.
Throughout the film, Laurie supplies anecdotes about his favorite musicians and tells the stories behind their songs. He is well versed in blues lore and to hear him go on about his passion is a joy. But he does have an ulterior motive, and that is to inspire those who never had an interest in blues music to seek out recordings by the masters: Leadbelly, J.B. Lenoir, Leroy Carr and Professor Longhair to name a few.
“The studio is like a cathedral,” Laurie says, taking us on a brief tour of Piety Recording Studios in New Orleans where he recorded his album Let Them Talk. “It oozes from the walls. It’s a humbling thing.” When he professes to be “completely in awe of these people” (“these people” being his fellow musicians and Let Them Talk producer Joe Henry), you can well believe it. The in-studio footage offers a behind the scenes look at the recording of songs like “Unchain My Heart” (which didn’t make the album) and “Baby, Please Make a Change”. It is evident from the quality of the sessions and the fine time these musicians had recording that a strong, lasting bond was formed.
In the end, we are treated to a portion of a joyous live performance by Laurie and his band at Latrobe’s on Royal in New Orleans’ French Quarter. A stately landmark, Latrobe’s was built in 1822 and was once the Louisiana State Bank. It’s a good room, possessing the perfect atmosphere for the gritty, age old music which makes up Laurie’s repertoire. Sir Tom Jones, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint join Laurie and his band for the show Laurie considers his musical rite of passage.
Down By the River is a glorious ride but at 45 minutes seems much too short; you get the feeling there are many aspects of Laurie’s musical journey yet to be explored. Hopefully he will continue making music, next time sneaking a few original tunes in with the classics. It will be something to look forward to.
Perspectives: Hugh Laurie-Down By the River was produced by Gina Carter for Sprout Pictures and directed by John Paul Davidson. It was originally broadcast in the U.K. on ITV-1 on May 15th, 2011. PBS will probably air the program in the U.S. in the fall.