Judge Clark Douglas draws his musical inspiration from the often-overlooked Professor Shorthair.
"One isn't supposed to cry within the first thirty seconds of a performance."
A great many actors also fancy themselves professional musicians, which has led to a whole lot of middling bands fronted by movie stars. There's Dogstar (Keanu Reeves), 30 Odd Foot of Grunts (Russell Crowe), The Boxmasters (Billy Bob Thornton)…the list goes on and on. However, Hugh Laurie manages to stand out among his peers for a variety of reasons. First of all, Laurie's musical skills have been evident from the beginning—consider his scenes of piano-plinking giddiness on Jeeves and Wooster and his guitar-playing sketches on A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Secondly, Laurie has a passion for a specific brand of music (American jazz and blues of the 1920s and '30s, or music that at least sounds like it could have originated in that era), which could use a bit more time in the spotlight. Finally, Laurie's also humble enough to recognize his limitations as a musician; never pushing himself too far for the sake of vanity. It helps that he's surrounded by a host of incredible supporting players, which goes a long way toward making Hugh Laurie: Live on the Queen Mary a real treat.
Why a performance on the Queen Mary, you ask? A few of you music aficionados out there may already know this, but the Queen Mary was also the place where New Orleans music legend Professor Longhair (a personal hero of Laurie's) recorded an esteemed live album in 1975 (though the album wasn't released until 1978). As such, Laurie was eager to perform in the same spot and attempt to recapture some of that swinging magic. The actor/singer seems quite moved by the whole affair, and it's a treat to witness the childlike joy that shines through now and then we he speaks about his passion for this music.
Anyway, the music itself is strong stuff: an effective mix of smoldering torch songs, bouncy jazz and swampy blues. If pressed to describe Laurie's voice, it I'd place it at the halfway point between Tom Waits and Dick Van Dyke. He's a fairly strong singer and a capable piano player, adding some bluesy affectations to his voice in a way that also occasionally makes him sound like a more polished Randy Newman. The surprising thing is that Laurie doesn't actually sing all of the songs himself, handing several of the numbers over to his gifted female band members Gaby Moreno and Jean McClain while he supports them on the keyboard. It's an approach that actually works quite well, partially because both Moreno and McClain have stunning voices and partially because it adds an extra level of diversity to musical material that stays within a somewhat narrow category. Here's the setlist:
Hamp's Hump (instrumental)
Hugh Laurie: Live on the Queen Mary (Blu-ray) sports a solid 1080i/1.78:1 transfer that only occasionally runs into problems. The lighting tends to be a bit dim, and there's a good deal of noise during a few numbers as a result. Otherwise, detail is quite strong and depth is impressive. Colors fluctuate a bit more than they should, but not to a distracting degree. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptional, really capturing every nuance of the music and delivering a nice balance between music, vocals and crowd noise (the crowd is a bit subdued here, but that's appropriate given that the concert is in the "PBS Special" category). There's only one supplement, but it's a good one: a 20-minute interview with Laurie in which the performer elaborates on his fondness for the Queen Mary, his band, the music he plays and life on the road.
Hugh Laurie isn't likely to become an inductee in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, but he's a seriously gifted musician whose passion for the material he plays is evident at every moment. Thanks to both the quality of the music and Laurie's charismatic stage presence, I had a great deal of fun with this disc. Check it out.
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