Hugh Laurie is a funny guy. If his role alongside Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry on Blackadder didn’t convince you of that, just see Laurie in concert. His stage banter is remarkable – a reminder of how entertaining performers can be when they engage with their crowd.
Of course, the English actor is no stranger to an audience. He rose to fame this side of the Atlantic thanks to his award-winning turn as the titular character on House. While it would be safe to assume that Laurie would be off somewhere in the Hollywood Hills flipping lazily through scripts and rolling around in a bed made of hundred dollar bills, it turns out the actor’s preoccupied himself with something else entirely.
Lately it hasn’t been film, television, or even Broadway that’s kept Laurie busy. No, he is a touring blues musician with two albums to his name – a fact even Laurie seems surprised by.
Needless to say, expect a bit of skepticism when any actor tries their hand at a musical career. Usually it’s just a side project, written off as a case of “I have a lot of money, what can I do with it?” And Laurie knows he’s in a strange position, telling the audience early on he understands if it feels weird – as if they’re on a plane flown by a dental hygienist. But as Laurie demonstrated throughout his Toronto performance, music isn’t just his temporary respite. It’s something he clearly finds a lot of pleasure in. It’s this energy and joy he brings to the stage that makes it all worth watching.
Laurie and the seven-piece Copper Bottom Band took to the Danforth Music Hall in support of Didn’t It Rain – his sophomore album released May 2013. It was a mostly older crowd gathered to hear the performance. Understandable, given Laurie’s records cover blues and jazz: genres that aren’t the typical fodder for the adolescent iPod.
The stage was decorated as if transported to a British nightclub/living room of eras long past. Lamps, a birdcage, flags, and a hatstand shared space with the assembled mini-orchestra that included various horns, plenty of guitars, drums, an upright bass, a mandolin, and Laurie’s grand piano.
The 54-year-old spent much of the set switching between vocals, the piano, a guitar, and shots of whisky – but by far his biggest strength wasn’t his singing voice (I’ll get to that), but his banter. Whether talking about his fondness for rain or affectionately nicknaming Toronto “‘ron”, Laurie seemed both present and engaged. Chuffed, even.
He would listen to the audience and respond, at one point countering muffled catcalls by asking the crowd just to text him. He was self-deprecating about the heckling too, introducing the Spanish-meets-English “El Choclo/Kiss of Fire” with: “I simply can’t hear. That’s just the cross I bear. And that’s why I play the way I do.”
During the number – off of the aforementioned Didn’t It Rain – Laurie took the English lines, backup vocalist Gaby Moreno taking the Spanish. It was moments like these that were the most noticeable – Moreno’s soulful voice obviously better trained than that of her duet partner. It was still fun though, the two breaking for a brief tango around the centre of the stage. Laurie is obviously aware his ability isn’t on par with the musicians he surrounds himself with (hence the blatant showmanship) but it’s hard to hold it against him when he’s doing it all with a wink in his eye.
He’s not making fun of the blues; he’s just diving into it and inviting the crowd along. It’s also not to say he has a quote-unquote bad voice – it’s deep, steady, and clear – but be aware there are limits to what you can expect from him as a vocalist.
Now, before you ask why anyone should pay money to see someone do something they’re not particularly exceptional at, I should draw attention to the seven musicians behind him. Unsurprisingly, Laurie’s Copper Bottom Band are stellar musicians and do most of the show’s heavy lifting.
A cover of Ray Charles’ “What Kind of Man Are You” was handled by Moreno and Jean McClain, Laurie taking a backseat to their big vocals. The two teamed up and also flew solo for other numbers throughout the night, complimenting each other well and having fun with their performances. The 60-year-old McClain was quite the sight. She appeared frail as she moved between the back and foreground, but once she sang it was a different story entirely. McClain turned into a one-woman hype machine, hamming it up and getting the audience on their feet.
On another standout number, Moreno gave an emotional, haunting performance of “The Weed Smoker’s Dream”, interrupted only by an equally strong trombone solo from Elizabeth Lea. Throughout the show, the horns from Lea and saxophonist/clarinetist Vincent Henry were remarkable – and reminders of just how good live blues and jazz can be.
Other highlights came with the very fun cover of Lead Belly’s “You Don’t Know My Mind” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River”. The latter was stripped down, featuring Laurie on guitar and vocals and accompanied by three members of the Copper Bottom Band. The band stole the number as they chimed in for harmonies and humourous interjections.
It is clear that Laurie knows his place on the stage and treats the show like he’s a kid with keys to the candy factory. It’s endearing rather than obnoxious – and I’m not sure many people would be able to pull that off. Again, self-deprecation helps. Whenever Laurie was next up on vocals, he’d preface his performance by saying things like: “What sort of an idiot would sing after that? The best thing I can do is try to put as much distance between this and that, so you’ve forgotten what good singing sounds like.”
Laurie also tried his hand at a Professor Longhair number and an Elvis Presley cover of “Mystery Train”, before ultimately ending his second encore with another big effort: The Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. After a marathon set of two-and-a-half hours, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the Toronto audience was left wanting (or expecting) more.
Besides the banter and the entertaining show, to Laurie’s credit he’s pulling in a lot of attention to this genre of music. It’s hard to imagine many blues musicians are able to draw this kind of a turnout. Laurie’s found a project he’s engaged with and surrounded himself with talented musicians that can play off of his strengths and weaknesses. It maybe doesn’t come as easy to him as it does to the rest of the band, but thanks to charm and spurred on by shots of whisky, Hugh Laurie makes for one heck of an entertaining night.
Thanks to Live Nation for media access.