There have been many surprise gig opportunities lately. Just a few miles away in Kentish Town tonight, for instance, Death From Above 1979 are kicking off the first of two reformation shows. Tom Vek is returning from years of exile in a month’s time, too. But nothing is as unexpected as a chance to see Hugh Laurie play the blues. Yes, the man best known around the world as Dr Gregory House is covering the music of the Deep South and putting out an album, entitled Let Them Talk. It’s an odd prospect to see a man born in Oxfordshire and taught at Eton playing tunes that critics have dared to suggest that he has ‘no right to play’, given that he doesn’t represent the struggles and hardships that inspired them.
However, Laurie doesn’t really see it like that. All he wants to do is to share the love of that particular style of music with anyone who’ll listen to him. As it turns out, there’s a sold out crowd in the Union Chapel who are either curious of his new venture or just die-hard Laurie fans. The evening proves to be a fun and entertaining one, if not exactly the stuff of revelation. As soon as the star of the show makes his way through the aisles of the chapel to the stage and takes to the piano to join his band on their opening instrumental, the audience is hooked.
The renditions played are solid. The five backing players are talented and agile; sometimes they swap instruments in the middle of a song. Highlights include engrossing versions of St James Infirmary and Battle Of Jericho, whilst more up-tempo numbers Swanee River and You Don’t Know My Mind also go down well. Laurie chooses to sing all of these in an American accent – he described in an interview that singing with his normal voice would be “musically wrong” – but this isn’t much of a bother. It actually has an air of early Tom Waits.
Recognising that not many of his fans might be aware of the songs themselves and/or their history, his between-song banter is comprised of sometimes explaining them in great detail; it’s almost like a musical version of QI. This could have come off as unbelievably patronising, but his charm and enthusiasm shines through as well as the witty humour that made him a household name in the UK years before America made him a worldwide celebrity. His character onstage is one that’s relaxed and comfortable, which is not something you feel that you can say about other actors’ forays into music.
Will Laurie’s charm and talent get people into the blues? The level of affection shown towards him and the band suggest that they’ll lap up his own album at least. As far as the evening goes, it wasn’t a spectacular experience, but then it wasn’t meant to be. The purpose, from the Hollywood star’s point of view, was to get a new generation turned on to a genre that he loves so much and to enjoy himself whilst doing it. If anything, it’s one of the better actor-turned-musician turns in recent memory.