As Hugh Laurie recalls to Mojo Magazine “This album got a spanking, and we hadn’t even made it” A top earning Actor likes Blues, so he heads for Hollywood, does some extra recording in New Orleans, all with a top class band, and makes a record. Presumably Warner Brothers weren’t worried, as long as the finished product included a sticker saying ‘Star of the Award Winning TV Series ‘Dr House’ So, everyone a winner then? Well maybe not everyone – how about Joe and Josephine public?
A three minute mournful piano intro to ‘St James Infirmary’ with it’s echoes of ‘Summertime’ kicks off this CD and its clear Hugh Laurie can certainly tickle the ivories with style. When the vocal arrives though its a teeny bit of an anti climax. Not bad, but just not special either. David Piltch’s upright bass pushes up the tempo a little and I can almost see ‘Bogie’ leaning on the piano to ask “Play it again Hugh” in a smoky bar room.
‘You don’t Know’ is much more up my street. There’s a House like sneer in Laurie’s voice as he chides “You don’t Know my mind” and I love the line “Sometimes I think my baby’s too good to die, some times I think she should be buried alive”. In fact I love the song and the simple lumbering backing that sounds like drummer Jay Bellarose is thumping a cardboard box. On ‘Six cold feet’ the cardboard seems better quality but otherwise its still a lumbering backbeat. Levon Henry’s Tenor Sax is ultimately the star of this one with the bottleneck playing a close second.
‘Buddy Bolden’ is a quirky little number that Laurie really stamps his own style to, and for the first time the vocal takes star billing. I’ve just been reading Stanley Booth’s book on the Rolling Stones where quotes about Bolden open many of the chapters: “‘King’ Bolden…used to place himself near an open window and blow his horn like a maniac” and “by 1914 Bolden was put into an asylum”. At any rate this song is one of the CD’s highlights for me. Laurie takes this number and by the end he owns it. It’s actually based on a Bolden song about flatulence called ‘Funky Butt’ (says Wikipedia) “Let that stinking air out” indeed.
‘Battle of Jericho’ is another number that Laurie puts his own stamp on. It’s still the same foot-tapping tempo as the earlier numbers though and the cardboard box thump hasn’t altered much either. Theres a violin in there for texture but only the spirited vocal and gospel backing vocals keep it alive and we are really in need of a change of style. We get it too as, cavalry like, at the last minute Dr John rides to the rescue with ‘After You’ve Gone’ and a jazzy vocal with Laurie doing what he really does best, delivering some classy piano back-up. It doesn’t replace the Mills Brothers version though and I keep waiting for the tempo jump from their version. Alas in vain.
Laurie’s back on vocals for ‘Swanee River’ and more importantly bashing out some furious ragtime runs on the keyboard. Patrick Warrens Accordion and some lively violin make this a fun piece too but those ivories are the undoubted highlight.
‘The Whale Has Swallowed Me’ is a mood track. The band hits a groove and doesn’t let it go – even when it should. I like the song, the vocal, and Lauries guitar. All good things have to come to an end – but this song starts to seem like it never will.
‘John Henry’ is another showcase for Lauries piano playing. Irma Thomas delivers some fresh vocals to this one. Not much else to say.
‘Police Dog Blues’ could be ‘Blind Blake’ playing guitar. If thats you Hugh, ‘Respect!’
‘Tipitina’ is a number Laurie always loved, maybe the one that made him learn piano? If so I’m glad he was inspired. As always, fine ivory tickling. Heading off into Dean Martin/Sinatra territory at times (maybe that explains the triby hat in the booklet pictures?)
Thankfully its back to simple Blues with ‘Winin Boy Blues’. It doesn’t replace Seasick Steve and it’s pleasant enough, but in the days when 45 rpm records existed this would be a sure fire B side.’They’re Red Hot’ is a bit of a throwaway number that most folkies have had a shot at when nipping through the Robert Johnson song book. Laurie nips through it pretty sharply too.
Then comes Sir Tom Jones on ‘Baby, Please Make A Change’. He’s got that lumbering beat with the cardboard drum to work in front of. It sounds like something from a Tom Jones disc. Whats it doing on this one? I paid for Hugh Laurie. Maybe thats him on slide guitar. If not – I want a partial refund!
Finally, ‘Let them Talk’ and it’s not just a song, it’s the whole project in a nutshell:. “Let them talk if they want to. Talk don’t bother me”. He’s made the album he always wanted to, and he’s happy. As he says in the sleeve notes “Why listen to an Actors Music?…the answer is, there is no answer” I’ll add my two penneth worth to that and say ‘Because you happen to like the music that the actor likes, and because he plays it rather well’ Which is actually the best reason in the world.
Not the best Blues CD ever made, but from the heart – and I hope not the last one from the good Doctor. Laurie proves you can be British, be wealthy, be white, and play the Blues – probably in an air conditioned room too!