IOWA CITY — Hugh Laurie’s joy is infectious, but don’t call him by his alter egomaniac, Dr. House. The 725 cheering fans filling the Englert Theatre on Friday night (8/17) didn’t want to be cured.
Not only is the dashing Brit a great actor, he’s a great blues pianist and an even better singer in person than on his new CD, “Let Them Talk.” It’s the visual that punches up the vocals.
He strolled onstage precisely at 8 p.m., looking rather Edwardian punk in his formal black longcoat, pants and pinkish ruffled tux shirt. Kneeling very properly, he hoisted a shot and saluted his cheering fans. Then he got down to business. The business of performing, which he knows so well.
“Until very recently, I was an actor,” he said to another round of cheers. “Imagine if a pilot said, ‘Until a couple weeks ago I was a dental hygienist,’ ” and then his voice trailed off amid the laughter.
Instantly, he proved he’s a great pianist who knows how to set a scene. He surrounds himself with the fantastic Copper Bottom Band — five musicians covering everything from accordion and electronic keyboards to a full range of guitars, saxes and other “blowy” things, double bass and drums — as well as some fine, wailing soul from Sister Jean McClain on background and solo vocals.
Their New Orleans shabby chic environment includes a soft glow from a chandelier and six lamps — several sporting beaded fringe — and touches of whimsy with a hatrack, a pheasant, a framed photo on a table behind Laurie’s gleaming black grand piano and mic stands wrapped in heavy drapery tassels.
What really lights up the stage, however, is Laurie’s megawatt smile, framed by his to-die-for dimples. He just exudes joy from his entire being, fingertips to smile to stomping feet to goofy dance moves and silly walks from piano to center stage microphone, where he occasionally picked up an acoustic guitar and sang in the spotlight.
His concert runs the gamut of blues, focusing largely on a New Orleans tradition that teeters into Dixieland and taps into jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel.
Every song has a little back story, some of them poignant, but most of them hilarious, with a comic timing honed in the early days of his career.
He came out stomping with “Mellow Down Easy,” before launching into a technically dazzling classical prelude to “St. James Infirmary,” which he calls “a very old song with a venerable history.” It’s the first track on his new CD. Seeing it live however, blows the recorded version right out of the water.
The Copper Bottom Band matches his virtuosity and powers up the drama with haunting clarinet, crashing cymbals, walking bass, amazing guitar and growly tenor sax. Followed by a story from Laurie about how the building that once treated leprosy and venereal diseases is now St. James Palace in London, ”where the Queen does whatever queens do — play Twister?”
It’s so hard to narrow down the highlights from more than two hours of nonstop music and laughter.
What makes Laurie unique is the way he takes songs we all know and totally reinvents them, breathing new life and surprises at every turn.
An eerie aura perfectly captures “Battle of Jericho,” but Laurie and company take the battle to new heights. I don’t know how he did it, but sax man extraordinaire Vincent Henry actually played tenor and soprano saxes simultaneously, with McClain adding her best gospel wail. The effect was simply stunning.
Another standout is “Swanee River,” sounding like nothing you’ve ever heard before, with mysterious clarinet and French accordion laying the groundwork before Laurie tears loose with boogie-woogie piano. Stephen Foster must surely be smiling and clapping with the rest of us.
Laurie’s favorite song, “Tipitina,” became our favorite song, because of his fervor. His first encore, with new lyrics set to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” even drew an “amen” from the audience.
And everybody jumped to their feet, clapping and dancing to a Dixieland ode to the British gin, Tanqueray, to close out the evening with plenty of cheer.
Laurie knows how to whip up a party in the house.