Actor Hugh Laurie framed his performance with self-deprecating humor at the Riviera Theatre on Saturday. Early in the set, he likened his forays into music to a dental hygienist moonlighting as an airplane pilot, as if to suggest that he was merely a tourist, more fanboy than genuine musical article.
As it turned out, the former star of television’s “House” didn’t need to poke fun of himself, nor present his musical efforts as those of an interloper. With his Copper Bottom Band keeping the proceedings firmly rooted in authentic New Orleans rhythm and blues, Laurie revealed himself to be an able, if not virtuosic, singer and a more than able rhythm and blues pianist Saturday.
He’s also hilarious. And that ability to present a mildly bemused persona made Laurie both an outstanding frontman and an enthused, well-informed tour guide throughout Saturday’s sold-out show, as he piled his fans into a metaphorical river boat and headed them down the Mississippi River, bound for the heart of American music.
It was clear from the outset, though Laurie was eager to point out his “interloper status,” that his love for this music – the primal American rhythm and blues, jazz, Cajun and folk that intermingles in the musical gumbo that is New Orleans – is genuine. As the Copper Bottom Band members took their places on the stage, Laurie emerged slowly from the orchestra pit, manning the Riviera Theatre’s fabled “Mighty Wurlitzer” like some sort of cross between a mad carnival barker and the Phantom of the Opera. The group then eased directly into the New Orleans staple “Iko Iko,” with Laurie at center stage manning the microphone and dancing in an odd, herky-jerky but charming manner.
When he sat at the grand piano stage left and tutored the crowd for a sing-along during “Let the Good Times Roll,” Laurie immediately owned the gig – the self-deprecating humor became superfluous, because he proved himself to be a commanding performer whose love for Jelly Roll Morton-style jazz-R&B-boogie-style piano playing had been translated into a firm, commanding style.
Yes, as Laurie made plain repeatedly, as a man primarily known for his acting abilities, fronting a band like the Copper Bottom ensemble is an amazing stroke of luck. But more often than not, Laurie’s impeccable timekeeping is what drove the band.
His style was both commanding and unfailing in regard to timekeeping.
That said, Laurie was not content to make the show all about himself – he showed off the incredible talents of the band at his disposal throughout the night. Singer Sister Jean McLain was granted abundant lead vocal slots and, along with fellow vocalist Gaby Moreno, brought a soul-gospel virtuosity to bear on stirring tracks like the Ray Charles number “What Kind of Man Are You” and the Nina Simone-associated “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Moreno took center stage for the rhumba “Kiss of Fire,” trading verses with Laurie in a manner both sensuous (Moreno) and self-effacing (Laurie). Another highlight found Moreno bringing a delicious late-night, foggy ambience to the Kansas Joe McCoy tune “The Weed Smoker’s Dream.”
The horn section composed of saxophonist Vincent Henry and trombonist Elizabeth Lea brought the swampy earth of New Orleans to the Riviera throughout – Lea using a plunger on her ’bone to summon the vocal-like inflections of the earliest days of jazz, Henry switching between baritone and soprano saxophones and delving deeply into the roots of swing music with a series of stellar solos that brought ovations from the crowd.
This was Laurie and the band’s second appearance at the Riviera, and clearly, all concerned have a real affection for the place.
“We’ve played all over the place, but I mean this sincerely – this is my favorite theater of any that we’ve ever played anywhere,” Laurie said.
He then brought out a tray filled with shots of whiskey, which he passed out to the band members before leading them in a toast to Tonawanda. Classy.
By this point, Laurie is beyond any need to apologize for his forays into this music he so clearly loves.
He is no virtuoso as a vocalist, but as Saturday’s show proved, he is not merely play-acting here. This was a joyous, vibrant and legitimate celebration of America’s music.