Live: Hugh Laurie at the Mint
Hugh Laurie began his concert Friday night at the Mint by comparing himself to a Rolls-Royce. Wait, no — his band was the Rolls-Royce, Laurie merely the Spirit of Ecstasy, borne aloft like that iconic hood ornament by the players' expert accompaniment. In any case, Laurie appreciated the irony of his upmarket metaphor.
“That's a way to open a blues show, isn't it?” he said, his crisp English accent a surprise, perhaps, to anyone who knows him from his role as an American medical genius on the TV series “House.” He then unfurled a discursive history of “St. James Infirmary,” the deep-rooted jazz standard that led off his 75-minute set and that comes first on “Let Them Talk,” Laurie's just-released debut album.
Record-nerd minutiae and wry self-deprecation are among Laurie's defenses against the reflexive skepticism that greets any actor attempting a crossover into music.
He's as smart as Dr. House to use them: Despite some very handsome arrangements by producer Joe Henry, “Let Them Talk” doesn't really work; it's a book with no action verbs, Laurie's toast-dry vocals unpacking little from well-known material written or popularized by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly and Professor Longhair. You hear his enthusiasm for the music — an accomplishment, given the generally impassive standards of the celebrity side project — but not his place in it.
Crowded onto the Mint's tiny stage with a sextet whose excellence he scarcely oversold, Laurie (himself on guitar and piano) made a far more believable claim on tunes such as “Crazy Arms,” “Tipitina” and “The Whale Has Swallowed Me.” The difference was Laurie's access to the full range of his expressive abilities: In “Buddy Bolden's Blues,” his grimacing delivery provided a welcome dash of naughty British humor, while “Swanee River” and “You Don't Know My Mind” benefited from the jumpy energy with which he's portrayed Dr. House's occasional psychotic episode.
Slower numbers did less to disguise the ordinariness of Laurie's singing, but here the star was aided immensely by his band, as when guitarist Kevin Breit and saxophonist Vincent Henry threaded “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” with a pungent intimation of the Middle East.
Several guest vocalists put in cameos on “Let Them Talk,” and Friday one of them showed up during Laurie's encore: Tom Jones, the great Welsh entertainer who made his own roots-music bid with last year's stripped-down “Praise & Blame.” The plan, as it appeared, was for Jones to sit in on “Baby, Please Make a Change,” from “Let Them Talk.” Mission accomplished, though Jones stuck around for “End of the Road” and “Great Balls of Fire,” two high-spirited Jerry Lee Lewis tunes Laurie seemed more than happy to let Jones commandeer.
Playing piano from inside the Rolls-Royce, Laurie was simply enjoying the view — a hood ornament temporarily reassigned.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: Actor Hugh Laurie performs with his blues band at the Mint, in Los Angeles, Sept. 30, 2011. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.