Review by C.J. Bunce
If you have yet to recover from Mardi Gras, you’ve a yen for more jambalaya and gumbo, and you didn’t find the baby in your king cake, there may be hope for you yet. Consider it another strand of purple, green and gold beads, if you will.
In case you missed it, 2011 was a banner year for Hugh Laurie. Depending on where you’re from and what medium you lean on the most, you may know Hugh Laurie as the brooding genius doctor who entered his eighth season on House, M.D. If you’re an Anglophile you may know him as part of a classic comic duo on the British series A Bit of Frye and Laurie, who then performed piano and sang as part of a vaudeville revival in Peter’s Friends, and performed various characters in various Blackadder series. Costume drama types may know him as Mr. Palmer, one of the best performances in Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility. Or if you’ve really been following Mr. Laurie you might have read his 1998 spy novel The Gun Seller, Laurie’s first foray into fiction writing.
But what connects all this to February in Louisiana is Laurie’s debut album of soulful jazz, New Orleans blues singing and old-time piano playing. Let Them Talk is an album you wouldn’t expect from a British actor, who speaks in real-life with an accent as English as they come. Of course, some would be surprised from his perfectly done American accent on House, M.D., that Laurie is even British at all. Adding certified blues musician to his bag of tricks as actor, comedian, and author, Laurie proved himself from all angles to be a true renaissance man.
Actors excel at “faking it.” They get to pose as anyone else, and just as Laurie can play 19th century gentleman and modern new England doctor-turned-ex con, it may be no surprise that Laurie could fake it as a musician. Yet, faking it is no where close to what is going on with Laurie and Let Them Talk. Not only is Laurie a spirited pianist and guitar player who knows his stuff, he also knows what good blues is all about and you just can’t fake soulful sounds like Laurie was able to record onto this album.
As New Orleans blues is concerned, Laurie will fully admit he doesn’t have the street cred to begin with. As he states in the liner notes to the album, “I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south…. If you care about pedigree then you should try elsewhere, because I have nothing in your size.”
Yet Laurie proves that a life-long love of a genre plus skill can equal if not the real thing, then something pretty darned close. Laurie can quote numerous influences and idols from classic jazz and blues, but his singing favorites he narrows to Ray Charles and Bessie Smith. At times, you can hear Laurie and his soul-sister/vocalists conjure up the sounds of both on this album.
His choice of music is a mix of gritty and street gospel.
With St. James Infirmary is a familiar tune played here with a classical twist that moves into a down-and-out anthem of despair straight out of the Great Depression. Laurie then sweeps into a honky tonk romp with a Cab Calloway-vibed back-up band.
You Don’t Know My Mind is a party of pure zydeco rhythms. Laurie’s vocalizations are as strong and powerful as any singer then or now, and his sound and feel echo a bit of Tom Petty when Petty has dabbled off the beaten track from Southern rock. A pretty cool duet those two would make.
Not surprisingly Six Cold Feet is Laurie at smooth traditional blues with a nice sultry saxophone beckoning the listener to some ill fate at the crossroads ahead.
Buddy Bolden’s Blues is as classic blues as it gets, and Laurie hilariously shows he can play a great Leon Redbone (or maybe it’s just Laurie and Redbone both reaching back for inspiration from the same old singers?
In the next song on the playlist Laurie may have created a contender for best-ever version of Battle of Jericho thanks in part to Jean McClain and Gennine Jackson’s soulful background echoes. The ever-building spiritual is sure to stick with you long after your first encounter and beckon you back for more.
Laurie’s meandering piano takes backseat on After You’ve Gone to Mac Rebennack’s rousing sounds, accompanied nicely by Robby Marshall on clarinet.
Laurie takes Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home and mixes honky tonk piano with early vestiges of Chuck Berry in his version he calls Swanee River, sneaking in from outta nowhere an Italian virtuoso violin sound that twists itself into a “devil down in Georgia” wrap-up at the end.
In John Henry Laurie sings back-up vocals to Irma Thomas. In a lot of albums you can get annoyed when the featured performer steps away and other performers take over. Not so on this album. Laurie’s deference of sorts is well placed and well timed and his selection of performers is well made. If Laurie’s album is credible, it’s in part to the sharing of roles between the singers and instrumentalists on each song.
If Police Dog Blues, Winin’ Boy Blues and the Whale Has Swallowed Me show off Laurie’s voice as the featured musical element, Tipitina is Laurie showing off his best piano playing. It’s that master playing you see Laurie performing in Peter’s Friends and at the tail end of select episodes of House, M.D.
They’re Red Hot is Laurie performing a quick-paced (and short) Robert Johnson tune, which is bound to be fun to hear in-person in concert. (Check out his website for a list of concert dates stretching up the West Coast beginning in May). Baby, Please Make a Change features Sir Tom Jones in a solid Louisiana blues tune.
Finally, the title song Let Them Talk features Laurie almost quietly poking fun at himself and the audience that may be skeptical of an Englishman delving into the taboo classic sounds of The Blues (how dare he!). It’s a nice finale and reminds this listener of the piano playing and singing of Billy Joel on Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Maybe best of all, Laurie’s reverence for this genre of music brings together honest and modern interpretations of traditional folk songs, spirituals and blues, all with deep American roots, and manages to offer a fresh and entertaining collection to accompany you as you while away the weekend on your porch with a cold glass of lemonade or sweet tea. If Laurie is a faker, he’s a faker of the best kind.
Let Them Talk is available everywhere records are sold, online and at certain Starbucks coffee houses.