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Hugh Laurie rocks House chasin' the blues to N'awlins

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As house bands go, well, this House guy's got one helluva band.

British-born actor Hugh Laurie, best known to TV audience's as prime-time's crankiest MD, is also a man of not-insignificant musical ability, and his love for the deep-rooted blues of the American south has afforded him the opportunity to showcase his tuneful talents alongside some of New Orleans' finest musicians.

That performance, and the musical pilgrimage that led him there, are brought to life in the PBS/Great Performances special Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk -- A Celebration of New Orleans Blues, which airs Friday at 8 p.m. on PPTV.

Part travelogue, part music-history exploration and part in-concert performance, the hour-long instalment is made fully captivating by the passion and enthusiasm Laurie shows for this side project.

Laurie, who professes a lifelong love for blues music and its pioneers, begins his partial cross-country journey in Texas, where he takes possession of a candy-apple-red 1966 Ford Galaxie convertible that will serve as his transportation for the rest of the trip.

He's fully aware that he's neither the first Brit to go docu-wandering across North America (hello, Michael Palin and Stephen Fry) nor the first showbiz type to make a filmic study of America's musical roots (Martin Scorsese, Ken Burns, Spike Lee), but he's determined to put his heart and soul into sharing this most personal of pilgrimages.

"This is like climbing Everest," he says from the driver's seat of the Ford. "It's a very big thing for the person doing it, but at the same time, I know that I'm probably going to find discarded ropes and oxygen tanks and Mars-bar wrappers along the way.

"It's a well-travelled route; nonetheless, it's a very big thing for me because this city has meant a huge amount to me, musically and in all kinds of ways. I think of it as the most romantic place on Earth. ... The music is everything, and the music has meant everything to me for a very, very long time."

Long before House made him a TV-drama star in North America, and before Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster made Brit-TV comedy stars of him and erstwhile partner Stephen Fry, Laurie was a musician, having studied notes and scales since age six and fallen in love with blues music as a young adolescent.

"As soon as I heard my first Willie Dixon song, I was on the hunt, and I would spend whatever pocket money I had on whatever blues records I could find," Laurie said last summer during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles.

And now, decades later, that hunt takes him onto America's interstate highway system, with Louisiana on the horizon.

With short stops in Austin and Luckenbach, during which he sits in with local pickers and singers and shows off his musical chops, Laurie makes his way to New Orleans, the final destination of a trip he's waited a lifetime to make.

He tours the city's famous neighbourhoods, often on bicycle, and seems genuinely awestruck by the place and its people.

"I feel like this is a city that doesn't fear death," he offers. "It has looked death in the eye. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, everyone is absolutely terrified -- terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying."

When he finally gets down to the music, including a live concert in the French Quarter and a series of recording sessions that spawned a CD release that accompanies this film, Laurie is surrounded by a rock-solid band of New Orleans bluesmen and joined by such stellar guest performers as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Tom Jones.

Laurie's reverence for the genre is apparent throughout, and he shows real respect and gratitude to the accomplished players who've allowed him to join their company. He's no slouch, musically, and he has a unique vocal style that brings a raw, raspy sincerity that fits the songs on his set list -- including such New Orleans standards as Saint James Infirmary, You Don't Know My Mind, Tipitina and the film/CD's title track, Let Them Talk -- very well.

"This may be as good as it gets," he says between songs at the historic Latrobe's building in the French Quarter. "In fact, this may be what heaven is like."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

TV PREVIEW

Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk -- A Celebration of New Orleans Blues

Starring Hugh Laurie, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Tom Jones

Friday at 8 p.m.

PPTV

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2011 D4

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