Fans of House, M.D. star Hugh Laurie have known for a long time that Laurie a gifted musician. His musicianship on piano and guitar have always been integral part of so many of his film and television performances, from the early days of A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster (both with comedy partner Stephen Fry) back in the 1980s to his current series House, about to enter its eighth season.
Earlier this year, Laurie brought his musicality to center stage, recording the recently released CD Let Them Talk, a genre-defying mix of jazz, blues, and folk—all of it deeply influenced by the unique sounds of New Orleans. Friday night, September 30, Laurie takes his passion to the PBS series Great Performances, produced by WNET, PBS in New York.
“Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk – A Celebration of New Orleans Blues” is as much a journey—a pilgrimage, really, as it is a performance. Passionate about this music since he was a child in England, Laurie was inspired as a teenager by hearing blues great Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.” And now he travels to his, indeed every jazz and blues afficionado’s, Mecca—New Orleans.
Laurie begins his “journey into the heart of lightness” in Texas hopping into a classic red Ford Galaxie 500 convertible, and packing a battered, ancient Martin guitar. He narrates this very personal odyssey, making stops along the way at iconic locales, taking viewers along with him into the soul of what makes New Orleans music unique. From participating in a Lukenbach, Texas guitar circle, to biking and walking his way around New Orleans, and reverently perusing the vinyl bins at the legendary Euclid record shop, we share in Laurie’s experience as much from his passionate fan’s perspective as from his musician’s expertise. “Here I am in the French Quarter playing with all these amazing musicians,” he says. “This may be about as good as it gets. In fact, this may be what heaven is like.”
Intercut within this musical travelogue, viewers are given a front row seat at Latrobe’s, an intimate French Quarter club where Laurie performs a set on piano and guitar. Backed some of the city’s finest musicians, he is joined on stage by the legendary Allen Toussaint, the godfather of New Orleans jazz, and sublime vocalist Irma Thomas. Fellow jazz fan Sir Tom Jones also puts in a guest appearance.
As a musician, Laurie is excellent on both piano and guitar. This is clearly no Hollywood vanity project. He especially gifted on piano; he is deft on the keys and he clearly feels and understands the music he’s playing.
The performance includes snippets as well as full renditions of several selections from Let Them Talk, including a gorgeous, bluesy arrangement of the traditional folk song “John Henry” (sung with Irma Thomas), a rip-roaring Swanee River setting transformed along the way to a minor-scale jazz, and a heart-felt “You Don’t Know My Mind,” which Laurie plays on the aforementioned elderly Martin (the best kind). Throughout the musical performance, he inhabits the music like his actor alter ego inhabits the character he plays on House.
It’s an hour well worth spending with Laurie, accompanying his travels into the heart and soul of New Orleans and her music. This is “a city that doesn’t fear death,” Laurie says of the city. “It’s looked death in the eye.” As he observes, its music is reflected through that prism. “Death is the minor key. Life is the major key.”
Great Performances airs Friday, September 30 at 9:00 p.m. ET on WNET in New York as well as most PBS stations.