Hugh Laurie and crew are no mere 'House’ band

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2012 - 4:51 PM

He played the title role in the medical series for eight seasons. Now he's on the road, and he and his band displayed some genuine chops.

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Hugh Laurie opened his set at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis Saturday night with a warning.

"Until recently, I was an actor," said Laurie, best known for playing the title role of "House" for eight seasons. "I suppose if a pilot got on the intercom and said that, until two weeks ago, he had been a dental hygienist, how many of us would stay on the plane?"

The audience soon discovered there was no reason to panic. In fact, Laurie and his backup group, the Copper Bottom Band, soared for two hours, taking listeners on a tour of New Orleans music graced with humor, enthusiasm and genuine chops.

The stage, populated with battered lamps, a coat rack and a stuffed bird, was as cozy and intimate as the tunes.

Laurie, dressed in a long black coat and frilly shirt, could have placated fans with a few contemporary numbers and references to his Fox drama. Instead, he led a pure love affair to early 20th-century jazz through classic numbers like "St. James Infirmary Blues," "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Swanee River."

Laurie's vocals changed to reflect each piece, channeling Ray Charles one moment and Jimmie Rodgers the next. He may not be a great singer, but he's a masterful impressionist.

Every persona was supported by a crackerjack team of musicians, most notably the very versatile guitarist Kevin Breit and horn player Vincent Henry, who each handled three or four instruments throughout the evening. Vocalist Jean McClain was underutilized, but she made the most of her spotlight moment, plowing through a soul-stirring version of "John Henry."

Laurie, who served the band Scotch about halfway through the show and nursed a shot glass himself, was chatty throughout the evening, introducing pieces with historical backdrops. This approach can often come across as an annoying lecture that keeps getting in the way of the top tapping, but Laurie's comedic background served him well as he delivered as many laughs as he did musical flourishes.

What Laurie was lacking was a proper director.

After 90 minutes, the mostly middle-aged crowd appeared to have lost the spirit. A few less melancholy numbers and a bit more boogie woogie would have vanquished the lethargy.

Laurie will hopefully have time to tighten the act. Of all the actors dabbling in music, he's among the most accomplished. Last year, in a news conference touting a PBS special about his time in New Orleans, Laurie half-joked that he was thinking about abandoning his acting career and setting up shop in a cocktail bar in South America.

If he truly pursues that route, I'd gladly pay the cover -- and pick up a round of Scotch.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 Twitter: @nealjustin

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